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Mendoza v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 5, 2017

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




         Salvador Manuel Mendoza, III ("Plaintiff) challenges the Social Security Commissioner's decision denying his applications for disability benefits. Plaintiff contends that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by improperly assessing his credibility. (See Joint Stip. at 4-5, 15-18.) The Court agrees with Plaintiff for the reasons discussed below.

         A. The ALJ Improperly Assessed Plaintiffs Credibility

         As a rule, absent a finding of malingering, an ALJ can reject a claimant's subjective complaints by "expressing clear and convincing reasons for doing so" supported by substantial evidence. Benton ex rel Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1040 (9th Cir. 2003); Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 489, 492-93 (9th Cir. 2015).

         Here, however, the ALJ issued a general finding that failed to (1) identify what testimony he found not credible[2], and (2) tie that testimony to the evidence he believed undermined Plaintiffs complaints. (See Administrative Record ("AR") at 18-20); Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 493 ("General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         Additionally, the ALJ's treatment finding - that Plaintiff "may" have exaggerated his symptoms because he was treated conservatively with medication monitoring - also lacks sufficient specificity[3]. (AR at 20); see Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 493; Henshaw v. Colvin, 2016 WL 541408, at * 10 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 11, 2016) ("[T]he ALJ must explain what statements were not credible and link those statements to the evidence of successful treatment of [claimant's] conditions through medication.").

         Moreover, the ALJ's finding that Plaintiffs credibility was diminished by the objective evidence of record, followed simply by a summary of some of the medical evidence, is insufficient. (AR at 18-20); see Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 494 II (credibility determination is insufficient when ALJ "simply state[s] [his] non- | credibility conclusion and then summarize[s] the medical evidence").

         In any event, the purported lack of objective medical evidence supporting Plaintiffs complaints cannot, by itself, support the credibility determination. (AR at 18, 20); seeRollins v. Massanari, 261 F.3d 853, 857 (9th Cir. 2001) (lack of objective medical evidence supporting claimant's symptoms and limitations cannot, by itself, support a credibility finding); Dschaak v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4498835, at * 1 (D. Or. Sept. 27, 2011) ("[O]nce the[] other bases for the ALJ's decision were discarded as erroneous, the ALJ's credibility determination could not rely solely on conflicts with the medical evidence.").

         Thus, the ALJ improperly assessed Plaintiffs credibility.

         B. Remand is Warranted

         With error established, this Court has discretion to remand or reverse and award benefits. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 603 (9th Cir. 1989). Where no useful purpose would be served by further proceedings, or where the record has been fully developed, it is appropriate to direct an immediate award of benefits. Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595-96 (9th Cir. 2004). But where outstanding issues must be resolved before a determination can be made, or where the record does not make clear that proper evaluation of the evidence would require a disability finding, remand is appropriate. Id. at 594.

         Here, in light of the error, the ALJ shall reconsider Plaintiffs subjective complaints and the resulting functional limitations, and either credit his testimony or provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence, for rejecting it. See Benton, 331 F.3d at 1040. Further, if the ALJ rejects Plaintiffs allegations, he must specifically identify what testimony is not credible, and what evidence undermines his complaints. See Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 493.

         Finally, the Court is mindful that "the touchstone for an award of benefits is the II existence of a disability, not the agency's legal error." Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 495. I Because it is unclear, on this record, whether Plaintiff is in fact disabled, remand here I is on an "open record." Id.; Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1141-42 (9th Cir. 2014). Given the necessity of remand, the parties may freely take up all issues raised in the Corrected Joint Stipulation, and any other issues relevant to ...

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