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White v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

March 9, 2017

MANDA FAYE WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL L. ABRAMS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I.

         PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff filed this action on April 6, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's[1] denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on April 27, 2016, and April 28, 2016. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Submission (alternatively “JS”) on February 13, 2017, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Submission under submission without oral argument.

         II.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on April 12, 1960. [Administrative Record (“AR”) at 157, 805.] She has past relevant work experience as an administrative assistant. [AR at 805, 866-67.]

         On March 31, 2010, plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging that she has been unable to work since October 29, 2009. [AR at 11, 157-58, 178.] Plaintiff's application and request for reconsideration were denied, and after a hearing, an unfavorable decision was issued on February 16, 2012. [AR at 11-18.] Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court in case number ED CV 13-1626-PLA, and on August 21, 2014, the Court remanded the matter for further proceedings. [AR at 904-21.] In its remand order, the Court ordered that on remand the ALJ “consider plaintiff's migraine headache condition to be a ‘severe' condition, ” and reevaluate plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [AR at 835; see also AR at 797.] On September 30, 2015, a hearing was held on remand before a different ALJ, at which plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 837-69.] A vocational expert (“VE”) and two medical experts (“ME”) also testified. [AR at 843-50, 851-61.] On December 11, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from October 29, 2009, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2013, the date last insured. [AR at 806.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on July 8, 2013 [AR at 1-3], the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sam v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citations omitted). This action followed.

         III.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Carmickle v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (same). When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted); see Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (“[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1198 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, [the reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.”) (citation omitted).

         IV.

         THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         Persons 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 which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve 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 Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended April 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 is denied. Id. If the claimant is not currently 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, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id. 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 and benefits are awarded. Id. 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 “residual functional capacity” to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. Id. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF ...


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