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Keller v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 5, 2017

CHRISTOPHER KELLER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          SUZANNE H. SEGAL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Christopher Keller (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or “Agency”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II DIB on July 22, 2013. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 144-45). In the application, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2012. (AR 144). The Agency denied Plaintiff's application initially on October 21, 2013. (AR 90-101, 98-101). On December 7, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR 109-10). Plaintiff testified before the ALJ, John D. Moreen, on October 21, 2014. (AR 44, 48-81). On October 31, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff benefits. (AR 19-40). Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied on May 19, 2016. (AR 1-4). Plaintiff filed the instant action on July 10, 2016.

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's History

         Plaintiff was born on February 13, 1955. (AR 48, 144). Plaintiff was 56 years old at the time of his alleged disability onset date of January 1, 2012 (AR 117), and 59 years old at the time of his hearing before the ALJ (AR 35, 48). Plaintiff completed more than four years of college and earned degrees in history and management/business administration. (AR 48, 158). Plaintiff worked in the past as a claims adjuster (AR 57, 174), security guard (AR 54, 174, 181), and private investigator (AR 55). With the exception of working one day in 2010, Plaintiff has not worked since December 31, 2008. (AR 49, 61). Plaintiff alleges disability due to anxiety, high blood sugar, sciatica, morbid obesity/metabolic syndrome, depression, carpal tunnel/tendonitis, pre-diabetes, and back pain. (AR 157).

         B. Vocational Expert's Testimony

         Vocational Expert (“VE”) Jane Hale testified at Plaintiff's hearing on October 21, 2014. (AR 81-86). The ALJ asked the VE whether a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's characteristics and the limitation of occasional contact with others could perform Plaintiff's past work as a security guard. (AR 82). The VE testified that this hypothetical person's characteristics and limitations would “still allow the security guard job, ” but the limitation “may [erode] the labor market.” (AR 83). The VE explained that because the hypothetical person “would be limited to taking assignments that were away from the public, ” the security guard job market would be eroded by “at least” 50 percent. (AR 83).

         After the VE testified about job erosion, the ALJ asked whether the VE's testimony was in conformance with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). (AR 83). The VE answered by stating “Yes.” (AR 83).

         IV. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and that is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The impairment must render the claimant incapable of performing the work she previously performed and incapable of performing any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         To decide if a claimant is entitled to benefits, an ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. §§ ...


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