United States District Court, N.D. California
ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 20,, 21
VAN KEULEN United States Magistrate Judge.
Deborah Lynn Gutierrez appeals a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff presents three
issues for review: (1) Plaintiff asserts that the
Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”)
determination of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
was erroneous because the ALJ gave too little weight to the
medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Victor
D. Contreras, M.D., and too much weight to the medical
opinion of an independent medical expert, Eric D. Schmitter,
M.D.; (2) Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred in analyzing the
appropriate factors when assessing Plaintiff's
credibility; and (3) Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's
determinations concerning her ability to do her past relevant
work or other work are not supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF 20
(“Pl. MSJ”) at 6. Before the Court are the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See
id.; Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF 21
(“Def. MSJ”). Having considered the cross-
motions for summary judgment,  the relevant law, and the record
in this case, the Court finds that the ALJ applied the proper
legal standards and that his determinations are supported by
substantial evidence. The Court therefore DENIES
Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS
Defendant's motion for summary judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
seeks disability benefits for the period from January 1, 2005
to September 30, 2007, the last day she was eligible to
receive Social Security disability benefits. At the alleged
onset date of January 1, 2005, Plaintiff was 51 years old.
Administrative Record (“AR”) 166. Plaintiff has
an 11th grade education. AR 187. She reported past work as a
cashier, limo driver, and truck driver. AR 188. On June 28,
2005, Plaintiff began treating with Dr. Contreras for neck
pain. AR 334; see also Pl. MSJ at 7. Plaintiff
continued to see Dr. Contreras regularly throughout the
period for which she claims disability and for several years
after her last insured date. AR 301-334.
filed a claim for disability benefits in 2011. See
AR 166-172. After her claim was denied initially and upon
reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an ALJ. AR
120-153. The ALJ held a hearing on April 15, 2013, at which
Plaintiff testified and was represented by an attorney.
See AR 63-79. On June 28, 2013, the ALJ issued a
decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 23-35.
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review
of the ALJ's determination. AR 5-10.
the decision of the Appeals Council, Plaintiff filed a timely
civil action in this Court. See ECF 1; AR 1-2. All
parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate
judge. ECF 11, 14.
Standard of Review
Court has the authority to review the Commissioner's
decision to deny disability benefits, but “a federal
court's review of Social Security determinations is quite
limited.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d
487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015); see also 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Federal Courts “leave it to the ALJ to
determine credibility, resolve conflicts in the testimony,
and resolve ambiguities in the record.”
Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (internal quotation
marks and citation omitted).
Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is
not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on
the application of improper legal standards. Id. at
492. “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.” Rounds
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002
(9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations
omitted). The Court “must consider the evidence as a
whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the
evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's
conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks and
citation omitted). Where the evidence is susceptible to more
than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold the
ALJ's findings if supported by inferences reasonably
drawn from the record. Id.
the ALJ commits legal error, the ALJ's decision will be
upheld if the error is harmless. Brown-Hunter, 806
F.3d at 492. But “[a] reviewing court may not make
independent findings based on the evidence before the ALJ to
conclude that the ALJ's error was harmless.”
Id. The Court is “constrained to review the
reasons the ALJ asserts.” Id. (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted).
Standard for Eligibility for Disability Benefits
benefits are available under Title II of the Social Security
Act when an eligible claimant 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ is required
to employ a five-step sequential analysis, determining: (1)
whether the claimant is doing substantial and gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe medically
determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of
impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months; (3)
whether the impairment meets or equals one of the listings in
the regulations; (4) whether, given the claimant's
residual functional capacity (i.e., what a claimant
can still do despite her limitations), the claimant can still
do her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant can
make an adjustment to other work. Ghanim v. Colvin,
763 F.3d 1154, 1160 and n.5 (9th Cir. 2014). The burden of
proof is on the claimant at steps 1 through 4, but shifts to
the Commissioner at step 5. Bray v. Commissioner of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).
employed the established five-step framework for evaluation
of disability claims and found as follows:
Step 1: The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not
engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset
date of January 1, 2005 through her last-insured date of
September 30, 2007. AR 28.
Step 2: The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had
“neck pain with history of 3mm disc herniation and pain
disorder” that qualified as a severe impairment under
20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c). Id.
Step 3: The ALJ held that through the date
last insured, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 405,