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Barajas v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

August 3, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          SHERI PYM United States Magistrate Judge



         On February 19, 2015, plaintiff Rodolfo Barajas filed a complaint against defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), seeking a review of a denial of a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

         Plaintiff presents two issues for decision: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) properly evaluated plaintiff’s transferable skills; and (2) whether the ALJ properly considered plaintiff’s credibility. Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff’s Complaint (“P. Mem.”) at 5-26; Memorandum in Support of Defendant’s Answer (“D. Mem.”) at 2-11; Plaintiff’s Reply (“Reply”) at 3-6.

         Having carefully studied the parties’ written submissions, the Administrative Record (“AR”), and the decision of the ALJ, the court concludes that, as detailed herein, although the ALJ properly considered plaintiff’s credibility, the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff’s transferable work skills. Consequently, the court remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions stated herein.



         Plaintiff, who was fifty-four years old on his alleged disability onset date, completed high school. AR at 60, 96, 106, 116, 231. His past relevant work was as a shipping supervisor, upholstery supervisor, and assembly room supervisor. Id. at 45, 88, 104, 252, 290.

         On March 28, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging an onset date of March 7, 2009, due to back pain from four discs worn out, pain in both legs, stress, and shingles. Id. at 96, 106-07, 190. The Commissioner denied plaintiff’s applications initially and upon reconsideration, after which plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 96-128, 132.

         On October 19, 2012 plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 58-87. Vocational expert (“VE”) Martin G. Brodwin also testified. Id. at 88-91. To update the record before making a disability determination, the ALJ ordered orthopaedic and psychological examinations of plaintiff and continued plaintiff’s hearing. Id. at 92-94.

         On June 17, 2013 plaintiff appeared at a second hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 44. VE Carmen Roman testified at the hearing. Id. at 44-55 On July 26, 2013, the ALJ denied plaintiff’s application for benefits. Id. at 23-33.

         Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that although plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity between August 1, 2011 and September 30, 2011, there was a continuous twelvemonth period during which plaintiff did not engage in any substantial gainful activity. Id. at 25-26.

         At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff suffered from the following impairments that in combination are severe: degenerative disc disease and spondylosis of the lumbosacral spine with radiculopathy; dysthymia; and an anxiety disorder in partial remission by December 11, 2009. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff’s impairments, whether individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). Id. at 27-28.

         The ALJ then assessed plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [1] and determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with the limitations that he could: lift or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand or walk for fifteen minutes at once; and sit for thirty to forty minutes at once. Id. at 28. The ALJ also determined plaintiff could: no more than occasionally use foot controls; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Id. Mentally, the ALJ determined plaintiff could perform simple to semi-skilled work. Id.

         The ALJ found, at step four, plaintiff was incapable of performing his past relevant work. Id. at 31. The ALJ also indicated plaintiff acquired from his past relevant work the following transferable work skills: management skills, capability to supervise, knowledge of production and shipping, coordinating production shipping, ability to direct activities in manufacturing, overseeing paperwork, and ensuring that processes are completed. Id. at 32.

         At step five, the ALJ found - based on plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, RFC, and transferable work skills acquired from past relevant work - there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed, including appointment clerk and order clerk. Id. at 32-33. Consequently, the ALJ concluded that, for the relevant period, plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 33.

         Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the decision, which the Appeals Council denied. Id. at 1-3, 17. The ALJ’s decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.



         This court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The findings and decision of the Social Security Administration must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001) (as amended). But if the court determines that the ALJ’s findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision to deny benefits. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035. Substantial evidence is such “relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s finding, the reviewing court must review the administrative record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ’s conclusion.” Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. The ALJ’s decision “‘cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.’” Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998)). If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the ALJ’s decision, the reviewing court “‘may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.’” Id. (quoting Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)).


         A. The ALJ Did Not Properly Evaluate Plaintiff’s Transferable Skills

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to identify or resolve a conflict between the VE testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). P. Mem. at 5-21. Plaintiff additionally argues that more than a little vocational adjustment is required for him to perform the “other work” cited by the ALJ. P. Mem. at 10-25; see AR at 33 (finding plaintiff not disabled because his transferable skills provide him the ability to perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy including that of an appointment clerk and order clerk). Plaintiff contends the ALJ’s implicit finding, based on the VE’s testimony, that “very little, if any, adjustment in terms of tools, work process, work setting, or the industry” would be required of plaintiff in applying transferable skills to other work is not consistent with agency policies, the DOT, or the Selected Characteristics of Occupations Titles (“SOC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1568(d)(4); see P. Mem. at 5-21; AR at 32-33, 52-53.

         To support finding a claimant not disabled at step four or five, the ALJ must cite evidence demonstrating either that the claimant can perform his past work, or that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, given his or her age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f), 416.920(e), (f). The DOT is the rebuttable presumptive authority on job classifications. Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1435 (9th Cir. 1995). ALJs routinely rely on the DOT “in evaluating whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy.” Te ...

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