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Gruber v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 27, 2017

MICHAEL A. GRUBER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CRAIG M. KELLISON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 14), and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment[1] (Doc. 21).

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for social security benefits on January 19, 2012, alleging an onset of disability on October 14, 2009, due to disabilities including bad heart, seven way bypass, titanium rod in right leg, torn rotator cuff, affective mood disorder, and chronic ischemic heart disease with or without angina (Certified administrative record (“CAR”) 85-86, 97-98, 109-110, 206-210). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on September 10, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Bradlee S. Welton. In a January 30, 2014, decision, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled[2] based on the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 14, 2009, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, torn right rotator cuff, status post coronary artery bypass graft, anxiety, and degenerative joint disease of the right knee (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, can sit for six hours in an eight-hour day with the option to stand up every thirty minutes for one to two minutes at the work station to stretch, can stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day, can occasionally climb ramps and/or stairs, can occasionally stoop, balance, crouch, crawl and kneel, cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, can occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity, can occasionally finger with the right upper extremity and can occasionally interact with the public and coworkers.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on August 26, 1961 and was 48 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. The claimant subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569, 404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from October 14, 2009, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(CAR 9-17). After the Appeals Council declined review on March 6, 2015, this appeal followed.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it is: (1) based on proper legal standards; and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). “Substantial evidence” is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). It is “such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971). The record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, must be considered and weighed. See Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a particular finding, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. See Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987). Therefore, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed, see Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, see Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in three ways: 1) the ALJ failed to explain both the physical and mental Residual Functional Capacity (RFC); 2) the ALJ erred in ignoring both plaintiff's testimony and that of his sister; and 3) the ALJ erred in discrediting his treating physician's opinion. The court will address these issues in reverse order.

         A. Medical Opinion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ wrongly rejected Dr. Dhaliwal's opinion. Dr. Dhaliwal, who plaintiff states was a treating physician, examined plaintiff, reviewed the treating records, and determined plaintiff is limited in his physical abilities. Dr. Dhaliwal noted in his September 25, 2013, letter that plaintiff had last been seen in 2009, but he did not specifically remember him as a patient. After noting plaintiff's medical conditions, he found plaintiff's physical examination showed limitations with bending his back as well as the use of his right shoulder. Specifically, Dr. Dhaliwal found plaintiff limited in sitting and standing no more than 4-6 hours in an 8-hour day, reaching, grasping, lifting no more than 20 pounds for no more than 3-4 hours in an 8-hour day; no running, climbing and lifting greater than 20 pounds; and no reaching above the shoulder or repetitive motion with right arm for 2 hours.

         The ALJ rejected Dr. Dhaliwal's opinion, in favor of another treating ...


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