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Fuhrer v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2017

NOUSHIN FUHRER, 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 June 8, 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 August 2, 2016, and December 9, 2016. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (alternatively “JS”) on March 9, 2017, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on December 25, 1964. [Administrative Record (“AR”) at 118.] She has past relevant work experience as a jewelry salesperson, and in the composite job of office manager and dental assistant. [AR at 43.]

         On September 27, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging that she has been unable to work since June 26, 2010. [AR at 17, 118-19.[2] After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [AR at 17, 83-84.] A hearing was held on October 20, 2014, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 27-46.] A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. [AR at 43-46.] On November 17, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from June 26, 2010, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2011, the date last insured. [AR at 17-22.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 10-11.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 10, 2016 [AR at 1-6], 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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