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Castro v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

March 6, 2017

PAMELA SUE CASTRO, As heir and representative of the Estate of Fernando Castro, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          VICTOR E. BIANCHINI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In February of 2013, Fernando Castro (“Claimant”) applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner of Social Security denied the applications.[1]Claimant passed away in June of 2015 and Plaintiff was substituted as Claimant's heir and representative. Plaintiff, represented by the Law Offices of Lawrence D. Rohlfing, Brian Shapiro, Esq., of counsel, commenced this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).

         The parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States Magistrate Judge. (Docket No. 11, 12, 20). On November 8, 2016, this case was referred to the undersigned pursuant to General Order 05-07. (Docket No. 18).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Claimant applied for benefits on February 14, 2013, alleging disability beginning January 21, 2013, due to various physical impairments. (T at 154-55, 167).[2] The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Claimant requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On December 16, 2014, a hearing was held before ALJ Dante M. Alegre. (T at 34). Claimant appeared with his attorney and testified. (T at 39-55). The ALJ also received testimony from David Rinehart, a vocational expert (T at 56-59).

         On April 8, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the applications for benefits. (T at 16-33). Claimant passed away on June 13, 2015. (T at 759). Plaintiff was substituted on Claimant's behalf on August 15, 2015. (T at 142). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on February 24, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-7).

         On May 23, 2016, Plaintiff, acting by and through her counsel, filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on September 7, 2016. (Docket No. 14). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on January 19, 2017. (Docket No. 21).

         After reviewing the pleadings, Joint Stipulation, and administrative record, this Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this case remanded for further proceedings.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Social Security Act (“the 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 which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act also provides that a claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if any impairments are of such severity that he or she is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering his or her age, education and work experiences, engage in any other substantial work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Thus, the definition of disability consists of both medical and vocational components. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step one determines if the person is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. 1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If not, the decision maker proceeds to step two, which determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).

         If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step, which compares the claimant's impairment(s) with a number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, which determines whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work which was performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform previous work, he or she is deemed not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At this step, the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is considered. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the fifth and final step in the process determines whether he or she is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of his or her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9thCir. 1971); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The initial burden is met once the claimant establishes that a mental or physical impairment prevents the performance of previous work. The burden then shifts, at step five, to the Commissioner to show that (1) plaintiff can perform other substantial gainful activity and (2) a ...


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