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Mejia v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 22, 2017

EDITHA MEJIA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

         THIS DECISION IS NOT INTENDED IN LEXIS/NEXIS, WESTLAW OR ANY OTHER LEGAL DATABASE.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          SUZANNE H. SEGAL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Editha Mejia (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner” or the “Agency”) denying her application for social security benefits. 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 this case is REMANDED for an award of benefits consistent with this decision.

         II. THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents her 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. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps are:

(1) Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
(2) Is the claimant's impairment severe? If not, the claimant is found not disabled. If so, proceed to step three.
(3) Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is found disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
(4) Is the claimant capable of performing her past work? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
(5) Is the claimant able to do any other work? If not, the claimant is found disabled. If so, the claimant is found not disabled.

Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99; see also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(g)(1) & 416.920(b)-(g)(1).

         The claimant has the burden of proof at steps one through four, and the Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54. Additionally, the ALJ has an affirmative duty to assist the claimant in developing the record at every step of the inquiry. Id. at 954. If, at step four, the claimant meets her burden of establishing an inability to perform past work, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform some other work that exists in “significant numbers” in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098, 1100; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1), 416.920(g)(1). The Commissioner may do so by the testimony of a vocational expert or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines appearing in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (commonly known as “the Grids”). Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001). When a claimant has both exertional (strength-related) and non-exertional limitations, the Grids are inapplicable and the ALJ must take the testimony of a vocational expert. Moore v. Apfel, 216 F.3d 864, 869 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1340 (9th Cir. 1988)).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ employed the five-step sequential evaluation process in evaluating Plaintiff's case. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 27, 2013, her alleged onset date. (Certified Administrative Record (“AR”) 17). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, conversion disorder, and depression. (AR 17).

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 18).

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can have “occasional” interaction with the public; work should not require more than occasional supervision, defined as requiring a supervisor's critical checking of work; work should be limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a work environment not requiring more than occasional production or pace work; and work should involve only simple work-related decisions, with few if any changes in the work place. (AR 19). In making this finding, the ALJ ruled that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible. (AR 20). The ALJ also discussed the results of a consultative mental status examination performed by Dr. David Starr, Ph.D.; assigned “little weight” to a ...


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