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Reyna v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 21, 2017

ANITA M. REYNA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER

          ALLISON CLAIRE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34.[2] For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be granted, and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment will be denied. This matter will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on December 14, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 20 (decision).[3] The disability onset date was alleged to be February 26, 2010. Id. The application was disapproved initially and on reconsideration. Id. On February 11, 2014, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) G. Ross Wheatley presided over the hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR 20-31 (transcript). Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by her counsel, Robert Smolich, Esq. Stephen B. Schmidt, a Vocational Expert (“VE”), also testified at the hearing.

         On March 14, 2014, the ALJ found plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d). AR 31. On September 17, 2015, after receiving a brief from plaintiff's counsel, and medical records from Palo Alto Medical Foundation as additional exhibits, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. AR 1-5 (decision, exhibit list, order).

         Plaintiff filed this action on November 2, 2015. ECF No. 1; see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. ECF Nos. 7, 10. The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 20 (plaintiff's summary judgment motion), 23 (Commissioner's summary judgment motion).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on May 24, 1962, and accordingly was, at age 47, a younger person under the regulations, when she filed her application.[4] AR 87. Plaintiff has a high school education, some college, and can communicate in English. AR 44. Plaintiff worked as a customer service representative for an advertising company between 1988 and 2010. AR 188.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         “[A] federal court's review of Social Security determinations is quite limited.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015). The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld “unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). “‘The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ..'” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. “While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those reasonably drawn from the record will suffice.” Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         The court reviews the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Rounds v. Commissioner Social Security Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015); Attmore v. Colvin, 827 F.3d 872, 875 (9th Cir. 2016) (“[w]e cannot affirm … “simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence”).

         It is the ALJ's responsibility “to determine credibility, resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities in the record.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (internal quotation marks omitted). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). Thus, in reviewing the Commissioner's decision, this court does not substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner. See Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (“[f]or highly fact-intensive individualized determinations like a claimant's entitlement to disability benefits, Congress places a premium upon agency expertise, and, for the sake of uniformity, it is usually better to minimize the opportunity for reviewing courts to substitute their discretion for that of the agency”) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The court may review “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010. Finally, the court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on “harmless error, ” meaning that the error “is inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination ….” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         IV. RELEVANT LAW

         Disability Insurance Benefits are available for every eligible individual who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(d)(1)(B)(ii). Plaintiff is “disabled” if she is unable “‘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 12 months ….'” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A)).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled and entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (setting forth the “five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability” under Title II and Title XVI). The following summarizes the sequential evaluation:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b).

Step two: Does the claimant have a “severe” impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the claimant is not disabled.

Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c).

Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, proceed to step four.

Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d).

Step four: Does the claimant's residual functional capacity make him capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.

Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f).

Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. ...

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