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Harris v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 5, 2017

MARCUS DUPREE HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          ALEXANDER F. MacKINNON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Marcus Dupree Harris protectively filed his application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on July 24, 2012. After denial on initial review and on reconsideration, a hearing took place before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on July 14, 2014, at which Plaintiff testified on his own behalf without the assistance of an attorney. In a decision dated August 6, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since July 24, 2012, the date the application was filed. The Appeals Council declined to set aside the ALJ's unfavorable decision in a notice dated January 27, 2016. Plaintiff filed a Complaint herein on March 24, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for benefits.

         In accordance with the Court's Order Re: Procedures in Social Security Appeal, Plaintiff filed a memorandum in support of the complaint on November 8, 2016 (“Pl. Mem.”) and the Commissioner filed a memorandum in support of her answer on December 8, 2016 (“Def. Mem.”). Plaintiff did not file a reply. This matter now is ready for decision.[1]

         II. DISPUTED ISSUES

         As reflected in the parties' memoranda, the disputed issues are:

(1) Whether the ALJ improperly determined Plaintiff did not suffer from a severe mental impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation.
(2) Whether the ALJ failed in his duty to an unrepresented claimant.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Social. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. This Court must review the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035.

         IV. FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995), as amended April 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 is denied. Id. If the claimant is not currently 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 nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id. 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. 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” to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. 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. Id. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         V. 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 July 24, 2012, the application date. (AR 10.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments: back strain; psychotic disorder; and history of polysubstance abuse. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic ...


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