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Luttrell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 23, 2017

CHARLES C. LUTTRELL, 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 his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.[2]

         For the reasons that follow, the court will deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and grant the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff argues that his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents him from performing jobs the ALJ identified as alternate work at Step 5, because they require overhead reaching. The argument fails, because the RFC - which he does not challenge - does not preclude such work; rather, it precludes work that requires overhead lifting.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on November 19, 2010, and for supplemental security income on July 12, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 9 (decision).[3]The disability onset date for both applications was alleged to be July 30, 2010. Id. The applications were disapproved initially and on reconsideration. Id. On August 19, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Bradlee S. Welton presided over a hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR 26-76 (transcript). Plaintiff was present and testified at the hearing. Id. Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id. “Mr. Sartorius, ” Vocational Expert (“VE”), testified at the hearing. Id.

         On January 17, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), and Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). AR 9-20 (decision), 21-25 (exhibit list). On June 11, 2015, 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 1-3.

         Plaintiff filed this action on August 21, 2015. ECF No. 1; see 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383c(3). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. ECF Nos. 7, 8. The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 15 (plaintiff's summary judgment motion), 16 (Commissioner's summary judgment motion).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on July 9, 1960, and accordingly was 50 years old on the alleged disability onset date, making plaintiff a person “closely approaching advanced age” under the regulations. AR 18; see 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1563(d), 416.963(d).

         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 and Supplemental Security Income are available for every eligible individual who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E) (DIB), 1381a (SSI). Plaintiff is “disabled” if he is “‘unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . ..'” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) (quoting identically worded provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(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) and 416.920(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) and 416.920(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 ...

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