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Spoto v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

August 8, 2016

PETER ANTHONY SPOTO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER

          JEAN ROSENBLUTH U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         I. PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner’s final decision denying his application for supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The matter is before the Court on the parties’ Joint Stipulation, filed April 25, 2016, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner’s decision is affirmed.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1959. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 127.) He completed 11th grade and worked as a house painter and handyman. (AR 36-37.)

         On December 11, 2008, Plaintiff filed for SSI, alleging that he had been unable to work since May 1, 2006 (AR 65, 127), because of lower-back and tail-bone problems (AR 66, 135). After his applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 66, 72, 88.) A hearing was held on November 2, 2010, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational and a medical expert. (AR 32-63.) In a written decision issued December 9, 2010, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 18-25.)

         On October 3, 2011, Plaintiff sought review of the Commissioner’s decision in this Court. (AR 316-18.) On July 10, 2012, a magistrate judge found that the ALJ had erred in relying on the VE’s testimony that Plaintiff could perform jobs requiring constant or frequent reaching notwithstanding his residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[1] for only occasional work above the shoulder. (AR 293-300.) The magistrate judge remanded the case for further proceedings. (AR 300.)

         On September 25, 2012, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s order. (AR 321.) On April 23, 2013, a second ALJ held a hearing, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a second VE. (AR 260-91.) In a written decision issued July 22, 2013, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 247-54.) On May 5, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review, specifically finding that the ALJ had “properly evaluated the evidence of record and provided good reasons for affording less or no weight to certain medical opinions.” (AR 221.) Plaintiff then filed this action, which was assigned to the undersigned magistrate judge because of the unavailability of the first magistrate judge.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits. The ALJ’s findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. See id.; Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a 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 Commissioner’s conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for the Commissioner’s. Id. at 720-21.

         IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         People are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

         A. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii).

         If the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”) set forth at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant’s impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient RFC to perform his past work; if so, he is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 416.920(a)(4)(v); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 416.920(a)(4)(v); Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         B. The ALJ’s Application of the Five-Step Process

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2008, the application date. (AR 249.) At step two, he concluded that Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy and chronic neck and shoulder pain of undetermined cause. (Id.) At step three, he determined that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal a listing. (AR 250.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a range of medium work (id.), which is defined as “lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds.”[2] § 416.967(c). Plaintiff could stand, walk, or sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday and occasionally stoop, bend, or work above shoulder level. (AR 250.) He was precluded from climbing ladders, working at heights, and balancing, and he had no reliable grip strength in his left, nondominant hand. (Id.)

         Finally, based on the VE’s testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a house painter but could perform other work in the regional economy. (AR 252-53.) Accordingly, he found him not disabled. (AR 254.)

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ (1) erred in assessing the opinion of Dr. Isaias Paja and (2) failed to articulate legally sufficient reasons for rejecting Plaintiff’s subjective symptom testimony. (J. Stip. at 4, 25.)

         A. The ALJ’s Assessment of the Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “failed to articulate specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting” Dr. Paja’s opinions. (Id. at 9.) For the reasons ...


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