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Curiel v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 2, 2016

ALVINA M. CURIEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND GRANTING DEFENDANT’S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT DOCKET NOS. 18, 19

          EDWARD M. CHEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff Alvina M. Curiel seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) final decision denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Currently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Having considered the parties' briefs and accompanying submissions, the Court hereby DENIES Ms. Curiel's motion and GRANTS the SSA's.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In May and June 2012, Ms. Curiel filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In both applications, she alleged disability beginning August 10, 2010. See AR 352-59. The SSA initially denied the claims in October 2012, and again upon reconsideration in May 2013. See AR 142-43, 182-83. Ms. Curiel then sought a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). See AR 252-57.

         ALJ Richard P. Laverdure held a hearing on Ms. Curiel's applications in February 2014. See AR 66-100. Ms. Curiel appeared and testified at the hearing. An independent medical expert and a vocational expert also testified at the hearing. A supplemental hearing was thereafter held in March 2014, during which Ms. Curiel provided additional testimony. See AR 57-65. Subsequently, on June 20, 2014, the ALJ issued his decision, concluding that Ms. Curiel was not disabled under the Social Security Act. See AR 22-37.

         In his decision, AJL Laverdure applied the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a); 416.920(a). At step one, the ALJ found that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether Ms. Curiel had engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 10, 2010, the alleged onset date for disability. See AR 27. However, the ALJ effectively assumed that, for purposes of his opinion, Ms. Curiel had not and proceeded to step two.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Curiel had “the following severe impairments: obesity, bilateral knee degenerative joint disease and arthritis, alcohol dependence, depressive disorder NOS [not otherwise specified], anxiety disorder NOS, [and] Borderline Intellectual Functioning (BIF).” AR at 28. At step three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Curiel did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See AR 28.

         At step four, the ALJ concluded that, based on her medical impairments, Ms. Curiel had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR [§§] 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she should avoid concentrated exposure to chemical fumes, odors, dusts and gases, and is limited to simple, repetitive, tasks with only occasional public interaction.”[1] AR 30. He then held that, based on that RFC, Ms. Curiel was not able to perform any of her past relevant work, as that work constituted light, rather than sedentary, work. See AR 36.

         At step five, however, the ALJ determined that Ms. Curiel was not disabled. See AR 36. In making this determination, the ALJ relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, also known as the “grids.” The grids set forth rules that identify whether jobs requiring a specific combination of four factors (namely, RFC, age, work experience, and education) exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1075 (9th Cir. 2007). More specifically,

[f]or claimants found capable of sedentary, light, or medium work, the [Social Security] regulations provide three grids, one corresponding to each level of residual functional capacity. These grids account for the vocational factors of age, education, and work experience . . . The ALJ determines a claimant's age, education, and work experience and reads from the appropriate table and line the conclusion of whether the claimant is disabled.

Calvin v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 802, 804 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Vanley v. Astrue, No. 2:12-cv-00791 CKD, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84956, at *30 (E.D. Cal. June 17, 2013) (noting that factors under the grids “include the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience” and, “[f]or each combination, the grids direct a finding of either 'disabled' or 'not disabled'”).

Because the grids are merely an administrative tool to resolve individual claims that fall into standardized patterns, there are limits on when the ALJ may rely on them. “[T]he ALJ may apply [the grids] in lieu of taking the testimony of a vocational expert only when the grids accurately and completely describe the claimant's abilities and limitations.”

Id; see also Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1340 (9th Cir. 1988) (noting that “[t]he grids are an administrative tool the [SSA] may rely on when considering claimants with substantially uniform levels of impairment”). “When the grids do not match the claimant's qualifications, the ALJ can either (1) use the grids as a framework and make a determination of what work exists that the claimant can perform, or (2) rely on a vocational expert when the claimant has significant non-exertional limitations.” Hoopai, 499 F.3d at 1075.

         In Ms. Curiel's case, the ALJ noted that, if she had the RFC “to perform the full range of sedentary work, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, a finding of 'not disabled' would be directed by Medical-Vocational Rule 201.25.” AR 36. But, the ALJ acknowledged, Ms. Curiel's RFC included nonexertional limitations - i.e., that “she should avoid concentrated exposure to chemical fumes, odors, dusts and gases, and is ...


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