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Branson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 30, 2017

PAMELA C. BRANSON, 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 her application 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. 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.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on March 9, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) 12 (decision).[3] 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.

         On 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 (decision).

         Plaintiff 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 (plaintiff's reply).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1965, and was 46 years old on the application date. AR 18. Plaintiff has a high school education. AR 18.

         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

         Supplemental 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).

         The 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 ...

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