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Vasquez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 16, 2017

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




         Plaintiff, Oscar Zuniga Vasquez (“Plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.[2]


         The parties agree that the Plaintiff properly exhausted his administrative remedies and that the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal. Therefore, this appeal is a review of Administrative Law Judge John Cusker's (“ALJ”) decision issued on July 3, 2014, which is considered the Commissioner's final order. See, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3).AR 15-23.

         A. Plaintiff's Claims and Issues Presented

         Prior to issuing his order, the ALJ held a hearing on April 2, 2014. AR 424-469. Plaintiff and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Jose Chaparro testified at the hearing. Plaintiff was fifty-one years old at the time of his hearing. AR 426. He applied for disability benefits after suffering a heart attack in March 2012, and claimed he was unable to work as a result of the attack. AR 17; 301; 426. Prior to his alleged date of disability, Plaintiff worked at Wawona Frozen Foods as a food processor where he stacked pallets and worked on the production line. AR 22; 427. The VE classified Plaintiff's past work at Wawona as a composite job consisting of several occupations including: a conveyor feeder, a packer of agricultural produce, a produce sorter, and a paperboard box maker. AR 457-463. On July 3, 2014, ALJ Cusker determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability requirements under the Social Security Act because he could perform his past relevant work. AR 23.

         Plaintiff now challenges the ALJ's decision, arguing that the ALJ incorrectly assessed the medical evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of consultative psychologist, Dr. Zhang, Ph.D., and that at a minimum, the ALJ had a duty to develop the record with respect to Dr. Zhang's opinion. Additionally, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred at step four because he erroneously determined that Plaintiff's past relevant work was a composite job and found that Plaintiff could perform this work generally and as actually performed. Plaintiff requests that the case be remanded for further proceedings so that these errors can be corrected.[4] (Doc. 15, pgs. 5-18; Doc. 17, 1-9).

         In opposition, Defendant responds that: (1) the ALJ properly discounted Dr. Zhang's opinion; (2) the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (3) the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's ability to do his previous work (Doc. 16, pgs. 8-15).


         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

. . . his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To achieve uniformity in the decision-making process, the Commissioner has established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f). The ALJ proceeds through the steps and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion testimony. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529, 416.927, 416.929.

         Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) whether the claimant had medically-determinable “severe” impairments, [5] (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work, [6] and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f) and 416.920(a)-(f).

         Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 15-23. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through September 30, 2014, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 9, 2012, the alleged onset date. AR 17. Further, the ALJ identified “the residual effects of a myocardial infraction” as a severe impairment. AR 17. Nonetheless, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or exceed any of the listed impairments. AR 18.

         Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform “essentially the full range of medium work with some environmental and mental limitations, ” meaning he: could lift or carry up to twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally; could stand, walk, and sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday; could occasionally balance; needed to avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes; needed to avoid exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; could perform simple vocational directives; could focus for two-hour increments; and could perform unskilled work at a competitive pace and could tolerate the stress inherent in unskilled work. AR 18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a food processor, which was a “composite job” consisting of the following constituent occupations: conveyor feeder/off bearer (DOT 921.686-014), packer-agricultural produce (DOT 920.687-134), produce sorter (DOT 529.687-186), and paperboard box maker (DOT 794.684-014). AR 22. Given the above, the ALJ did not proceed to step-five of the disability determination process and found that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. AR 22.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether: (1) it is supported by substantial evidence; and (2) it applies the correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Commissioner, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 ...

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