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Gutierrez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

March 27, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          SUSAN VAN KEULEN United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff 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, [1] 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.


         Plaintiff 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.[2] 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Following 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.


         A. Standard of Review

         This 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).

         The 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.

         Even if 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).

         B. Standard for Eligibility for Disability Benefits

         Disability 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).

         To 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).


         The ALJ 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, ...

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