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Quezada v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 26, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff filed a Complaint on May 17, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Title XVI supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. (See Dkt. No. 1.) On October 4, 2016, defendant filed an Answer to plaintiff's Complaint. (Dkt. No. 16.) All parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (See Dkt. Nos. 11, 12, 13.)

         On December 27, 2016, the parties filed a “Joint Submission” (“Joint Stip.”) setting forth the issues and contentions in the case. (See Dkt. No. 18.) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding this case for benefits, or remanding for further proceedings. (See Joint Stip. at 22.) Defendant requests that the decision be affirmed, or the case be remanded to the Agency for further administrative development. (See Joint Stip. at 22.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.


         On October 7, 2009, plaintiff filed his application for SSI benefits, alleging a disability onset date of May 22, 2004. (AR 14, 103.)[2] Plaintiff was born on December 14, 1971, which made him 32 years old at the time his disability allegedly began and 37 years old at the time he filed his application. (AR 24, 256.) Plaintiff did not graduate from high school, completing only the 11th grade. (AR 43, 67.) He had previously worked as a construction worker (DOT 869.687-026), but, after he was stabbed “multiple times” in his lower back at a nightclub in 2004, he claims he has been unable to work. (AR 17-18, 24.)

         After initial denials, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge William Mueller (“ALJ Mueller”), on November 8, 2011. (AR 33-59.) On December 13, 2011, ALJ Mueller issued an unfavorable decision, finding that plaintiff had a severe medically determinable impairment - “residuals of multiple stab wounds to the back” - but had not been under a disability since the date of his application. (AR 100-10.)

         On August 13, 2013, the Appeals Council remanded plaintiff's case with instructions to: consider the weight to be given to an opinion from consultative examiner Dr. Bryan To; address any evidence from Licensed Clinical Social Worker (“LCSW”) Mark Daniels (whom the Appeals Council noted was “not an acceptable medical source”); address evidence from a State Agency physician, “A. Schrift”; update the treatment record; and obtain testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”) as warranted. (AR 116-17, 188-91.)

         On December 23, 2013, another hearing was held before ALJ Mueller. (AR 60-73, 218.) Plaintiff appeared telephonically and represented himself, without an attorney. (See id.) A VE also testified. (Id.) Following that hearing, the case was again remanded by the Appeals Council for further proceedings, with directions to update the treatment record, obtain evidence from a VE, and resolve any conflicts that might exist between any occupational evidence the VE might provide and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). (AR 11.)

         On September 17, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Dante Alegre (“ALJ Alegre” or “the ALJ”) held a third hearing. (AR 74-94.) Plaintiff was present and represented by counsel. (Id.) A VE, Aida Worthington (“the VE”), also appeared and testified. (Id.) On December 18, 2014, ALJ Alegre issued an opinion denying plaintiff's application for SSI. (AR 8-32.) Plaintiff requested review of the 2014 adverse decision (AR 7) and on April 25, 2016, the Appeal Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-5.) This timely appeal followed.


         In an opinion dated December 18, 2014, ALJ Alegre found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 7, 2009, the date of the SSI application. (AR 14.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: (1) “status post stab wounds in the lumbar area”; (2) lumbar strain with sciatica; (3) depression; and (4) posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (AR 14.) ALJ Alegre determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 15.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as follows: “he could lift or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; he could sit, stand, or walk for 6 hours each in an 8hour day; he could bend, crouch, stop, or crawl frequently; and he could have frequent contact with the public or coworkers.” (AR 16.)

         ALJ Alegre found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as a construction worker but could do other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of: (1) “stores laborer, ” DOT 922.687-058; (2) “linen room attendant, ” DOT 222.387-030; or (3) “hand packager, ” DOT 920.587-018. (AR 24-25.) Consequently, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not been under a disability since the date the application was filed on October 7, 2009 through the date of his decision. (AR 25.)


         The parties' Joint Submission presents two disputed issues. First, plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly consider and evaluate the opinion of “Licensed Family Marriage Therapist” Dr. Avigail Ward. (Joint Stip. at 3-7.) Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the records from plaintiff's “treating pain management physician, ” Dr. Navdeep Loomba. (Id. at 13-16.)


         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 the legal error, ‘the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.'” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted).


         I. The ALJ's Evaluation of Dr. Ward's Opinion

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly dismissed the opinion from Dr. Ward and did not give her opinion the “substantial weight” it deserved. (Joint Stip. at 3.) Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ's rationale for discounting Dr. Ward's opinion was ...

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