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Hicks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 19, 2017

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




         Marcia Exie Hicks (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on July 6, 2016, seeking review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Dkt. No. 1.) On August 23, 2016, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 9, 10, 11.) On May 24, 2017, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Joint Stip.”). (Dkt. No 21.) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding for further proceedings or an immediate award of benefits. (Joint Stip. at 36.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed or, in the alternative, remanded for further proceedings. (See Id. at 37.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.


         On August 30, 2012, Plaintiff, who was born on May 27, 1960, filed an application for DIB.[2] (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 139.) Plaintiff alleged disability commencing August 15, 2012 due to carpal tunnel in both wrists and unspecified pain or discomfort in her neck, shoulders, and upper back. (AR 139, 159.) Plaintiff previously worked as a collection clerk (DOT 241.357-010), skip tracer (DOT 241.367-026), and administrative general office clerk (DOT 219.362-010). (AR 23, 160.) After the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially (AR 67) and on reconsideration (id. 79), Plaintiff requested a hearing (see Id. 94). Administrative Law Judge Nancy M. Stewart (“ALJ”) held a hearing on November 18, 2014. (Id. 30.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified before the ALJ as did vocational expert (“VE”) Corinne Porter. (See AR 32-57.) On December 23, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, denying Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and DIB. (Id. 14-25.) On May 9, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. 1-6.)


         The ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017. (AR 19.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her August 15, 2012 alleged onset date. (AR 19.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “carpal tunnel syndrome of the bilateral extremities; deQuervain's tendinitis of the bilateral wrists; degenerative disc disease of the spine with radiculitis.” (AR 19.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526). (AR 19-20.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] can lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. She is limited to pushing and pulling within these weight limits. [Plaintiff] can stand, walk, sit, and stand for 6 hours out of an 8-hour period. No work on ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or near work hazards. [Plaintiff] cannot forcefully grip or grasp and is limited to only frequent handling and fingering, but no repetitive use of the hands, including no keyboarding. She is also limited to non-complex tasks due to her use of pain medications.

(AR 20.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a collection clerk, skip tracer, or administrative general office clerk. (AR 23.) However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of bagger (DOT 920.687-018), cleaner (DOT 323.687-014), and cafeteria attendant (DOT 311.677-010). (AR 24.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR 25.)


         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 ...

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