United States District Court, E.D. California
PAMELA C. BRANSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner Of Social Security, Defendant.
ALLISON CLAIRE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner
of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her
application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security
Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§
1381-1383f. 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. The ALJ did not commit reversible error. It is not
clear whether or not the ALJ considered the January 7, 2014
MRI of plaintiff's spine, but even if he failed to
consider it, any error was harmless. Moreover, the ALJ
properly rejected plaintiff's testimony.
applied for supplemental security income on March 9, 2012.
Administrative Record (“AR”) 12
(decision). The disability onset date was alleged to
be May 1, 1996. Id. The applications were
disapproved initially, and on reconsideration. Id.
On June 25, 2014, Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Peter F. Belli presided over the video
hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR
32-61 (transcript). Plaintiff was present and testified at
the hearing. Id. Plaintiff was represented by
non-attorney Steven Skinner at the hearing. Id.
Alina Sala, a vocational expert (“VE”), also
testified at the hearing. Id.
August 20, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision,
finding plaintiff “not disabled” under Section
1614(a)(3)(A) of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §
1382c(a)(3)(A). AR 12-19 (decision), 20-22 (exhibits). On
October 30, 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 2-4
filed this action on December 28, 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), 17
was born in 1965, and was 46 years old on the application
date. AR 18. Plaintiff has a high school education. AR 18.
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)).
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).
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
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).
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).
Security Income is available for every eligible individual
who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. § 1381a.
Plaintiff is “disabled” if she 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).
Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process
to determine whether an applicant is disabled and entitled to
benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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., § 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