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Ruth v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 10, 2017

BONNIE RUTH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN D. EARLY United States Magistrate Judge.

         I.

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Bonnie Ruth (“Plaintiff”) filed the Complaint herein on July 11, 2016, seeking review of the denial by the Commission of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) of her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Social Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. No. 1.)

         The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 25, 26.) Plaintiff filed a Memorandum (“Mem.”) in support of her Complaint on March 8, 2017, Defendant filed an Answer with supporting Memorandum (“Ans.”) on May 10, 2017, and Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief on May 23, 2017. (Dkt. Nos. 19, 24, 28.) The matter is now submitted for decision.[1] For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this matter is dismissed with prejudice.

         II.

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS AND BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on October 16, 1963. (Administrative Record [“AR”] 18.) Plaintiff alleged disability beginning January 31, 2010. (AR 195, 202.) On September 27, 2012, Plaintiff concurrently filed for DIB and SSI under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (AR 195-205, 216.) The claims were denied initially on February 1, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on September 6, 2013. (AR 123-28, 131-42.) Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on October 17, 2013. (AR 143-44.) An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on August 26, 2014 and, on October 14, 2014, found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 11-68.) On May 17, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final determination. (AR 7-12.) This action followed.

         III.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Persons are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of no less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). In assessing disability claims, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation to determine at each step if the claimant is or is not disabled. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing, inter alia, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)). First, the ALJ considers whether the claimant is currently working in substantial gainful activity. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to a second step to determine whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months. Id. If so, the ALJ proceeds to a third step to determine whether the claimant's impairments render the claimant disabled because they “meet or equal” any one of the “listed impairments” set forth in the Social Security regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See Rounds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1001 (9th Cir. 2015).

         If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a “listed impairment, ” before proceeding to the fourth step the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).[2] 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920 (d), 416.945; Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines at the fourth step whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work, either as she actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant cannot perform her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to a fifth and final step to determine whether there is any other work, in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that the claimant can perform and that exists in “significant numbers” in either the national or regional economies. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100-01 (9th Cir. 1999). If the claimant can do other work, she is not disabled; but if the claimant cannot do other work and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         The claimant generally bears the burden at each of steps one through four to show that she is disabled or that she meets the requirements to proceed to the next step, and the claimant bears the ultimate burden to show that she is disabled. See, e.g., Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110; Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995). However, at step five, the ALJ has a “limited” burden of production to identify representative jobs that the claimant can perform and that exist in “significant” numbers in the economy. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(1)-(2), 416.960(c)(1)-(2); Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100.

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision denying benefits 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).

         Although courts will not substitute their discretion for the Commissioner's, courts 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).

         “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). “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, 674 F.3d at 1110; see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (court will uphold decision when evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation). However, a 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).

         Lastly, even if legal error is found, the reviewing court will still uphold the decision if the error was harmless, that is, where it is inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination, or where, despite the error, the Commissioner's path “may reasonably be discerned, ” even if the Commissioner explains her decision “with less than ideal clarity.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted).

         IV.

         SUMMARY OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ calculated that Plaintiff met the special earnings requirements for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits through June 30, 2012. (AR 13.) The ALJ then used the five-step sequential evaluation process to guide her decision. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 31, 2010. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the severe impairments of cervical spine disorder status post-surgery, lumbar spine disorder, disorder of the bilateral knees and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ decided that the impairment did not meet or equal any “listed impairment.” (AR 14.) The ALJ further found that, through her date last insured, Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work with the following exceptions:

[T]he claimant can lift and carry no more than 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently and can push and pull within those weight limits; can stand and walk for two out of eight hours with no prolonged walking greater than 30 minutes at a time; can sit six out of eight hours with the ability to rise after an hour from a seated position to work at a standing position for 30 minutes; cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; cannot kneel, crawl, stoop or crouch; can frequently perform bilateral overhead reaching; cannot perform work that requires repetitive motion of the neck; cannot be exposed to work hazards such as working at unprotected heights, operating fast or dangerous machinery, or driving commercial vehicles; and must avoid all exposure to extreme cold. Additionally, the claimant can only perform unskilled work due to the pain and the side effects of medication. (AR 14-15.)

         At step four, based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a supervisor, food checker, and cashier. (AR 17-18.)

         At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including work as a: (1) Cashier II, DOT 211.462-010; (2) Assembler, electrical accessories, DOT 729.687-010; and (3) Assembler, small products, DOT 706.684-022. (AR 18, 19.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant period from January 31, 2010 through October 14, 2014. (AR 19.)

         V.

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