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Barrios v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

April 20, 2017

COLLEEN M. BARRIOS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN L. STEVENSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff filed a Complaint on June 6, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her applications for Title II Social Security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. (See Dkt. No. 1.) All parties have consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (See Dkt. Nos. 11, 12.) On January 10, 2017, the parties filed a document titled “Joint Stipulation” (Dkt. No. 17), and that same day, January 10, 2017, the parties filed a document entitled “Joint Stipulation (Amended)” (“Am. Joint Stip.”) (Dkt. No. 18).[1]Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision denying her applications and remanding the case for further proceedings. (Am. Joint Stip. at 15.) The Commissioner requests that the decision be affirmed or, in the alternative, that the case be remanded for further administrative proceedings. (id.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         On October 17, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of July 13, 2012. (See AR 27.) Plaintiff was born on December 8, 1961, and at the time she filed her applications she was 50 years old, which is defined as an “individual closely approaching advanced age.” (AR 34.) After initial denials, a first hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was convened on May 5, 2014. (AR 27, 82-92.) Plaintiff appeared alone at that hearing because she had just recently lost the attorney who had been representing her, and the ALJ allowed a continuation of the hearing to give plaintiff the opportunity to obtain new representation and perhaps submit further medical records. (AR 82-92.)

         Another hearing was convened on October 27, 2014, and plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney. (AR 40-81.) Plaintiff testified she was 5' 4” tall, weighed 155 pounds, and had three children and two grandchildren. (AR 45-46.) Plaintiff said she had worked a “seasonal job” at a fishery in Alaska, working “18-hour days” and doing “hard work, ” but she testified that the last time she was there her hands were so swollen she could only “put stamps on envelopes and boxes, ” and she said that they “sent me home right away.” (AR 48-49, 55; see also AR 32.) A vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the second hearing. (See AR 71-77.) The ALJ told the VE that “I'm going to find that none of the past work was performed at SGA levels” (that is, none of plaintiff's past work rose to the level of “substantial gainful employment” (aka “SGA”)), and the VE said “[o]kay.” (AR 72.)

         The ALJ then gave the VE several hypotheticals, including one based on a claimant with the RFC to perform light work with certain additional non-exertional limitations, including limitations to “simple job instructions” and “simple, routine, repetitive tasks.” (See AR 72-73.) The VE opined that, based on that RFC for light work with those non-exertional limitations, plaintiff could perform the following jobs: (1) “information clerk, ” Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) no. 237.367-018, light, unskilled work at the “Specific Vocational Preparation” (“SVP”) level of 2; (2) “messenger, ” DOT no. 239.567-010, light, unskilled work at the SVP 2 level; and (3) “shipping and receiving weigher, ” DOT no. 222.387-074, light work at the SVP 2 level. (AR 73-74.)

         In responding to a question from plaintiff's attorney, the VE acknowledged that, if the exertional level for each of those three jobs was reduced from light to sedentary, plaintiff could not perform any of those jobs. (AR 76.) In response to a question from the ALJ, the VE asserted that his testimony was consistent with the DOT. (AR 77.)

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         On January 9, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion denying plaintiff's applications for DIB and SSI benefits at step five of the sequential evaluation. (AR 27-35.)

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the following “severe” impairments: (1) tendinosis of the shoulders with effusion and tearing of the left shoulder; (2) joint space narrowing of the acromioclavicular joints bilaterally; (3) cervical spondylosis; (4) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine including disc space narrowing; (5) joint space narrowing of the knees; (6) hepatitis C; (7) hypothyroidism; (8) headaches; (9) bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; (10) inflammatory arthritis; and (11) a depressive disorder. (AR 29.)

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) for light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), but with certain “nonexertional limitations.” (AR 31.) Despite those “nonexertional limitations, ” the ALJ determined that plaintiff still had the RFC to be “able to understand, remember, and carry out simple job instructions”; and “to maintain attention and concentration to perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.” (Id.) The ALJ also found that plaintiff had the RFC to be “able to interact frequently with coworkers, supervisors, and the general public”; “to work in an environment with occasional changes to the work setting”; and “to make occasional work-related decisions.” (Id.) At step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ concluded that “[t]ransferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.” (AR 34.)

         At step five, the ALJ went on to find that plaintiff had the RFC to perform three jobs identified by the VE: (1) “information clerk, ” DOT no. 237.367-018, light unskilled work, SVP 2, with 51, 000 jobs in the national economy; (2) “messenger, ” DOT no. 239.567-010, light unskilled work, SVP 2, with 82, 000 jobs in the national economy; and (3) “shipping and receiving weigher, ” DOT no. 222.387-074, light unskilled work, SVP 2, with 36, 000 jobs in the national economy. (AR 34-35.) The ALJ stated that, pursuant to Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 00-4p, the ALJ had “determined that the [VE's] testimony is consistent with the information contained in the [DOT].” (AR 35.)[2] Thus, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from July 13, 2012, the alleged onset of disability date, through February 9, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 35.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 ...


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