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Mendoza v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

April 5, 2017

CONNIE MENDOZA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN E. SCOTT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff 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 affirmed.

         I.

         BACKGROUND

         A. ALJ Martinez's February 2011 Decision Denying Benefits.

         In June 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.

         ALJ 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 113.

         Regarding 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.

         ALJ 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.

         ALJ 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.

         Plaintiff 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 133-35.

         B. ALJ Urbin's Decision Denying Benefits in October 2014.

         On 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.

         A 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. AR 20-41.

         ALJ 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.

         ALJ 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.

         ALJ 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.

         This 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 40.

         Based 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.

         II.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 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.

         “A 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).

         A. The Evaluation of Disability.

         A 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).

         B. The Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         The ALJ 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), 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         If the 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).

         If the 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).

         If the 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.

         If that 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.

         III.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         The 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 ...


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