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Hawthorne v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

March 16, 2017

SHANNON D. HAWTHORNE Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN L. ST7VENSON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Shannon D. Hawthorne (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on May 9, 2016, seeking review of the denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). On June 21, 2016, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 11-13.) On December 20, 2016, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”). (Dkt. No 19.) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and ordering the payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remanding for further proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 12.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings. (See Id. at 13.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On August 17, 2012, Plaintiff, who was born on December 31, 1980, filed an application for SSI.[2] (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 107.) Plaintiff alleged disability commencing January 1, 2001 due to schizophrenia, lower back pain, panic attacks, auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, and illiteracy. (AR 124.) Plaintiff alleged no previous work experience. (Id.) After the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially (AR 55), Plaintiff requested a hearing (see Id. 60). Administrative Law Judge Brenton Rogozen (“ALJ”) held a hearing on June 25, 2014 (id. 32-44). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified before the ALJ as did vocational expert (“VE”) Robin Scher. (See AR 38-44.) On September 30, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. (Id. 11-17.) On March 15, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. 1-7.)

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date. (AR 13.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: a learning disorder, not otherwise specified; a mood disorder, not otherwise specified; and polysubstance abuse with physiological dependence, in reported remission. (Id.) However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the application date through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 16.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is ‘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.'” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). “Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is “‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, ' or if despite the legal error, ‘the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.'” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         The sole issue in dispute is whether the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence at step two of the sequential analysis when he determined that Plaintiff does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments. (Joint Stip. at 3.)

         I. The Medical Evidence Of Plaintiff's Mental Impairments

         A. Plaintiff's Prison Medical Records

         Plaintiff was incarcerated in 2012 and released in June 2013. (AR 195.) On August 6, 2012, M. Kirklin, LCSW, a clinical social worker with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”), conducted an initial screening of Plaintiff and found indications that he has a possible mood disorder. (AR 163.) At that time, Plaintiff reported that he, inter alia: has a history of taking antidepressants; attempted suicide in 1996; believed, now or at some point in the past, that people were watching or spying on him; believed, now or at some point in the past, that people were following him; believed, now or at some point in the past, that he has been poisoned or plotted against by others; believed, now or at some point in the past, that someone could control his mind; and experienced auditory and/or visual hallucinations either now or at some point in the past. (AR 164.) He identified his past psychotropic medications as Haldol, an antipsychotic, and Lithium. (167.)

         Plaintiff was then examined by CDCR psychiatrist, L. Kuberski, who diagnosed Plaintiff with “no diagnosis or condition” (see AR 170 (8/14/2012 - diagnosing Plaintiff with v71.09 on Axis I)) and assessed a GAF score of 75, indicating that Plaintiff had mild difficulty in social, occupation, or school functioning but was “generally functioning pretty well” (id.). See also Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM-IV”) 34 (revised 4th ed. 2000). Dr. Kuberski observed that Plaintiff's fund of information, intellectual functioning, concentration, attention, memory, thought processes, insight, judgment, mood, speech, sleep, appetite, affect, and general coping skills were all within normal limits. (AR 168, 172.) Dr. Kuberski also noted that Plaintiff was not presently taking any psychiatric medications. (AR 172.) Based on the foregoing, Dr. Kuberski determined that Plaintiff did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the California Department of Corrections' Mental Health Services Delivery System. (AR 170.)

         Plaintiff's CDCR medical records also show that he had two subsequent medical examinations during his incarceration for reasons unrelated to his mental health. Neither examining physician noted that Plaintiff reported or exhibited mental distress or possible psychiatric difficulties. (AR 177 ...


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