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Wade v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

March 31, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Brian Scott Wade (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on March 16, 2016, seeking review of the denial of his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). On March 10, 2017, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 10, 24, 25.) On January 11, 2017, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”). (Dkt. No 23.) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding for further proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 12.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings. (See Id . at 13.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.


         On May 31, 2012, Plaintiff, who was born on May 18, 1967, protectively filed an application for SSI.[2] (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 189.) Plaintiff alleged disability commencing January 1, 2009 due to “depression, mental impairments, bi-polar, severe anxiety, autism, [and] schizophrenia.” (AR 219.) Plaintiff previously worked as a home attendant (DOT 354.377-014). (AR 37, 220.) After the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially (AR 121) and on reconsideration (id. 135), Plaintiff requested a hearing (see Id . 152). Administrative Law Judge Philip J. Simon (“ALJ”) held a hearing on January 9, 2014 (id. 47). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified before the ALJ as did vocational expert (“VE”) Gregory Jones. (See AR 50-88.) On April 8, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. (Id. 12-41.) On February 5, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. 1-3.)


         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his May 31, 2012 application date. (AR 19.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; history of motor vehicle accident with multiple fractures; obesity; asthma; depression; anxiety; and a history of methamphetamine abuse. (AR 21-24.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). (Id. 24-26.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; cannot be exposed to concentrated fumes, dusts, gases, unprotected heights, and dangerous machinery; and is further limited to simple routine work with no more than occasional contact with the public as a function of job duties.

(AR 27.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a home attendant. (AR 37.) However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of cafeteria attendant (DOT 311.677-010), routing clerk (DOT 222.687-022), and product assembler (DOT 706.687-010). (Id. 39-40.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 41.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is ‘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.'” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). “Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is “‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, ' or if despite the legal error, ‘the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.'” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted).


         There are two issues in dispute: (1) whether the ALJ properly applied res judicata to an earlier ALJ decision; and (2) whether the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of Plaintiff's treating doctor. (Joint Stip. At 2.)

         I. ...

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