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Fields v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

April 21, 2017

STACY L. FIELDS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER

          JEAN ROSENBLUTH U.S. Magistrate Judge

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1968. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 36.) She completed 12th grade and two semesters of college. (Id.) She worked as a financial-services representative and a peer facilitator. (AR 37-38.)

         On August 9, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she had been unable to work since March 2, 2009, [1] because of bipolar disorder, “[r]espitory [sic]/[o]xygen complication, ” arthritis, depression, anxiety, spinal stenosis, lower-back and pelvic-bone pain, asthma, and persistent and uncontrollable bladder leakage. (AR 78-79.) After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 113, 120, 126.) A hearing was held on July 11, 2014, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational expert. (See AR 29-77.) In a written decision issued August 25, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 6-24.) On September 10, 2014, Plaintiff sought Appeals Council review (AR 5), which was denied on December 18, 2015 (AR 1-3). This action followed.

         III. 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 of legal error and supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. See id.; Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such 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. 1996). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for the Commissioner's. Id. at 720-21.

         IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         People are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or 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. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to assess whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 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. § 404.1520(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 her ability to do basic work activities; if not, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(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 at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed. § 404.1520(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 RFC to perform her past work; if so, she is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving she 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 she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 2, 2009, the alleged onset date. (AR 11.) At step two, he concluded that Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine at ¶ 5-S1, bilateral patellofemoral syndrome, thoracic myofascial strain, asthma, obesity, possible fibromyalgia, history of gastric bypass surgery with chronic anemia, and bipolar disorder. (AR 12.) At step three, he determined that her impairments did not meet or equal a listing. (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work except that she could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could no more than frequently kneel, crouch, crawl, balance, or be exposed to extreme heat or wetness; could no more than occasionally stoop, climb ramps and stairs, be exposed to workplace hazards and pulmonary irritants, or interact with the public; was limited to no more than occasional changes in her workplace setting; and was precluded from performing complex work activity. (AR 13-14.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff was “likely to be absent from the workplace about one day a month.” (AR 14.)

         Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (AR 22-23.) At step five, he relied on the VE's testimony to find that given Plaintiff's RFC for light work “impeded by additional limitations, ” she could perform three “representative” light, unskilled occupations in the national economy. (AR 23-24.) Accordingly, he found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 24.)

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of treating psychiatrist Dr. Staci Johnson that she would not be able to “adapt to new or stressful situations” or “complete a 40-hour workweek without decompensating.” (J. Stip. at 5.) She does not challenge any of the ...


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