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Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 31, 2017

KATHERINE MARTIN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, 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 disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.[1] For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be granted and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment will be denied. The matter will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and for SSI on August 5, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 202-207 (Exh. 1D), 208-214 (Exh. 2D).[2] The disability onset date for both applications was alleged to be December 31, 2002. AR 202, 208. The applications were disapproved initially, AR 145-148 (Exh. 1B), 149-152 (Exh. 2B), and on reconsideration, AR 156-160 (Exh. 4B), AR 161-165 (Exh. 5B). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Robert C. Tronvig, Jr. presided over a hearing on June 23, 2013, attended by plaintiff's attorney and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Jim Van Eck, who testified. AR 78-86. Plaintiff was present and testified at the hearing as well. AR 53-74, 77, 81.

         On October 9, 2013, the ALJ found plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), and Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). AR 11-26 (decision), 27-31 (exhibit list). On May 12, 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 1-5 (decision).

         Plaintiff filed this action on July 10, 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. 26 (plaintiff), 6 (defendant). The cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 18, 25.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1964, and accordingly was 38 years old on the alleged disability onset date, making her a “younger person” under the regulations. AR 25; see 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1563(c) (age as a vocational factor), 416.963(c) (same). Plaintiff has at least a high school education, and can communicate in English. Id.

         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

         Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income are available for every eligible individual who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382(a)(3)(A). Plaintiff is “disabled” if she 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 ….'” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) (quoting 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b) and 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., §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c) and 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 disabled. If not, proceed to step four.

Id., §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d) and 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

Step four: Does the claimant's residual functional capacity make him capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.

Id., §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f) and 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f).

Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

Id., §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g) and 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g).

         The plaintiff bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a) (“In general, you have to prove to us that you are blind or disabled”), 416.912(a) (same); Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. However, “[a]t the fifth step of the sequential analysis, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant is not disabled and can engage in work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012); Bowen, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5.

         V. THE ALJ's DECISION

         The ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2007.
2. [Step 1] The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2002, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq.).
3. [Step 2] The claimant has the following severe impairments; multiple level cervical degenerative disc disease (“DDD”), cervical narrowing most prominent at ¶ 3-4 and C5-6, chronic back pain, bipolar I disorder, and recurrent major depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. [Step 3] 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. [Preparation for Step 4] After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), except no climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds and mentally limited to simple tasks (unskilled work) with limited peer and public interaction.
6. [Step 4] The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. [Step 5] The claimant was born on … 1964 and was 38 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. [Step 5, continued] The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. [Step 5, continued] 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. [Step 5, continued] 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 December 31, 2002, through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

AR 13-26.

         As noted, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§416(i), 423(d), and Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A). AR 26.

         VI. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ committed the following legal errors: (1) he failed to properly weigh and credit treating opinion evidence, and rejected examining and non-examining medical opinion evidence he purported to accord “significant weight” without articulating legitimate reasons for so doing; and (2) he failed to credit plaintiff's testimony and statements regarding the impact of her impairments and symptoms on her ability to function without articulating clear and convincing reasons for so doing. Plaintiff requests that the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for payment of benefits, or in the alternative, for further proceedings with the appropriate corrective instructions. (ECF No. 18 at 1.)

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of Medical Opinion Evidence

         1. Principals Governing Consideration of Medical Opinion Evidence

         In the Ninth Circuit, courts “distinguish among the opinions of three types of physicians: (1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant (non-examining physicians).” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, more weight should be given to a treating physician's opinion than to those who do not treat the claimant, ...


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