United States District Court, C.D. California
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
E. SCOTT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Connie Mendoza appeals the decision of the Commissioner
denying her application for Social Security benefits. For the
reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is
ALJ Martinez's February 2011 Decision Denying
2009, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI. AR 110.
She alleged disability beginning on March 6, 2000. AR 110.
She appeared at a hearing before administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) Joel B. Martinez, where she was
represented by counsel. AR 42-74, 110. On February 15, 2011,
ALJ Martinez issued a decision denying benefits. AR 110-22.
Martinez found that Plaintiff had the following severe
impairments: morbid obesity, asthma, history of seizures,
degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, depressive
disorder, cognitive disorder, and personality disorder with
borderline and dependent traits. AR 113. However, he found
that the combination of these impairments did not meet or
medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Listing”). AR
her mental impairments, ALJ Martinez found Plaintiff had mild
restrictions in activities of daily living; mild difficulties
in social functioning; moderate difficulties with regard to
concentration; and no episodes of decompensation. AR 114.
Because her mental impairments did not cause “at least
two ‘marked' limitations or one ‘marked'
limitation and ‘repeated' episodes of
decompensation, each of extended duration, ” the ALJ
found her mental impairments did not meet or medically equal
the criteria of Listing 12.04. AR 113-14.
Martinez found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a limited range of medium
work. AR 115. He found that she could engage in postural
activities only occasionally; could not climb ladders, ropes,
or scaffolds; could not be exposed to heights or hazards;
could not have concentrated exposure to fumes or gases; and
could perform only simple work, with occasional public
contact. AR 115.
Martinez found Plaintiff was born on December 29, 1957 and
therefore qualified as a “younger” individual
ages 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. AR 121.
Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, ALJ Martinez
opined that Plaintiff could perform medium unskilled work,
such as a hand packager, laundry worker, and linen room
attendant. AR 122.
sought review by the Appeals Council, but it denied review on
February 15, 2011. AR 129-32. Plaintiff then filed an action
challenging that decision in this court. See Mendoza v.
Comm'r of SSA, Case No. CV-12-00201-AN. This Court
affirmed the ALJ's decision on December 21, 2012. AR
ALJ Urbin's Decision Denying Benefits in October
September 4, 2012, Plaintiff filed a new application for SSI.
AR 227-35. She did not file a new DIB claim because ALJ
Martinez's decision covered the period through her date
last insured. AR 23. She alleged a disability onset date of
August 29, 2012. AR 227.
hearing was held before ALJ Richard Urbin on July 3, 2014, at
which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. AR 75-106. ALJ
Urbin issued a decision denying benefits on October 27, 2014.
Urbin gave the prior decision of ALJ Martinez res judicata
effect in part, until December 29, 2012. AR 24. ALJ Urbin
declined to rely on the prior decision after that date
because, as of December 28, 2012, Plaintiff “became a
person of advanced age, which constitutes ‘changed
circumstances.'” Id. Additionally, ALJ
Urbin found that Plaintiff established new impairments
beginning in July 2013 (mixed urinary incontinence) and April
2014 (bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthrosis of the
hands, and hypertension. AR 24, 26, 32. ALJ Urbin therefore
concluded: “[B]eginning December 28, 2012, I am not
bound by Judge Martinez'[s] overall decision that
[Plaintiff] is not disabled, and beginning July 2013, I am
not bound by his specific finding regarding [Plaintiff's]
residual functional capacity.” Id.
Urbin found that the impairments identified by ALJ Martinez
in February 2011-obesity, asthma, a history of seizures,
degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, a depressive
disorder, a cognitive disorder, and a personality disorder
with borderline and dependent traits-continued to be
medically determinable impairments and that, in combination,
they were severe. AR 32. He found that Plaintiff's new
impairments arising after ALJ Martinez's decision-urinary
incontinence, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome,
osteoarthrosis of the hands, and hypertension-were not
severe. AR 30, 32. He further found that other impairments
mentioned in the medical records-fibromyalgia, vertigo,
bilateral upper and lower extremity weakness and a sense of
imbalance, abdominal pain, and cardiac problems, and hearing
problems-were not medically determinable. AR 30-32.
Urbin concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a
limited range of medium work as follows. AR 33. She can lift
and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently;
stand and/or walk for 6 of 8 hours; and sit for 6 hours in an
8hour workday. AR 33. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds, and she cannot work in an environment that
involves exposure to heights, hazards or concentrated
exposure to fumes or gases. AR 33. In addition, she can
perform simple work with occasional public contact. AR 33.
was nearly the same RFC assigned by ALJ Martinez, except that
ALJ Urbin removed the limitation regarding postural
maneuvers. Compare AR 33 with AR 115. ALJ
Urbin concluded, “[D]espite the change in age category
and additional impairments, I find that [Plaintiff's]
physical and mental [RFCs] are not further reduced.” AR
on this RFC and the testimony of a vocational expert, ALJ
Urbin concluded that Plaintiff could perform work such as a
stock selector/laborer, stores; hand packager; and laundry
worker. AR 41.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the
Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's
findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from
legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based
on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971);
Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007).
Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a
reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401;
Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th
Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a
preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035
(citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880,
882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial
evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court “must
review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both
the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts
from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v.
Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the
evidence can reasonably support either affirming or
reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not
substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner.
Id. at 720-21.
decision of the ALJ will not be reversed for errors that are
harmless.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676,
679 (9th Cir. 2005). Generally, an error is harmless if it
either “occurred during a procedure or step the ALJ was
not required to perform, ” or if it “was
inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability
determination.” Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec.
Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).
The Evaluation of Disability.
person is “disabled” for purposes of receiving
Social Security benefits if he is unable to engage in any
substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental
impairment that is expected to result in death or which has
lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at
least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v.
Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). A
claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of
producing evidence to demonstrate that he was disabled within
the relevant time period. Johnson v. Shalala, 60
F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995).
The Five-Step Evaluation Process.
follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in
assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Lester v.
Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n. 5 (9th Cir. 1996). In the
first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the
claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim
must be denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i),
claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the
second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether
the claimant has a “severe” impairment or
combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability
to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of not
disabled is made and the claim must be denied. Id.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination
of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to
determine whether the impairment or combination of
impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of
Impairments (“Listing”) set forth at 20 C.F.R.,
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is
conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does
not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth
step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the
claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform his past work; if so, the
claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied.
Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving he
is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966
F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima
facie case of disability is established. Id.
happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the
Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the
claimant is not disabled because he can perform other
substantial gainful work available in the national economy.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the
sequential analysis. Id. §§ 404.1520,
416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n. 5;
Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.
parties' Joint Stipulation (“JS”) presents
the following two issues: (1) whether the ALJ properly
evaluated the state agency doctors' opinions regarding
Plaintiff's mental limitations; and (2) whether the ALJ