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Gontes v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 13, 2017

CATALINA GONTES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          JOHN E. MCDERMOTT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         PROCEEDINGS

         On March 2, 2016, Catalina Gontes (“Plaintiff” or “Claimant”) filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on June 9, 2016. On December 15, 2016, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“JS”). The matter is now ready for decision.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed bef ore this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record (“AR”), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed and this case dismissed with prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a 48-year-old female who applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits on September 17, 2012, alleging disability beginning March 14, 2012. (AR 13.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 17, 2012, the application date. (AR 15.)

         Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on November 30, 2012, and on reconsideration on May 31, 2013. (AR 13.) Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lawrence J. Duran on April 14, 2014, in San Bernardino, California. (AR 13.) Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing without the assistance of an attorney or other representative. (AR 13.) Vocational expert (“VE”) Elizabeth G. Brown-Ramos also appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 13.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 21, 2014. (AR 13-23.) The Appeals Council denied review on January 5, 2016. (AR 1-3.)

         DISPUTED ISSUES

         As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, Plaintiff raises the following disputed issues as grounds for reversal and remand:

1. Whether the ALJ has properly considered and assessed the relevant medical evidence of record in this case supporting Plaintiff's claim of disability.
2. Whether the ALJ has properly considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and properly assessed her credibility.
3. Whether the ALJ's decision at step number five is supported by substantial evidence.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); see also DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991) (ALJ's disability determination must be supported by substantial evidence and based on the proper legal standards).

         Substantial evidence means “‘more than a mere scintilla, ' but less than a preponderance.” Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). “However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or . . . can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The first step is to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, disability benefits will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit the claimant's ability to work. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment is listed, or equivalent to an impairment listed, in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix I of the regulations. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work. Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001). Before making the step four determination, the ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The RFC is “the most [one] can still do despite [his or her] ...


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