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Ramage v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California, Southern Division

July 14, 2017

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


          JOHN D. EARLY United States Magistrate Judge



         Plaintiff filed the Complaint herein on August 3, 2016, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Dkt. No. 1.) The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 22, 23, 24.) Pursuant to the Court's Case Management Order (“CMO”), the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on June 16, 2017, addressing their respective positions. (Dkt. No. 30, “Jt. Stip.”) The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument. As set forth in the CMO, this decision is made based on the Administrative Record, the pleadings, and the Joint Stipulation of the parties under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure applying the standards set forth in 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).



         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, an Administrative Law Judge (“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 twelve 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 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 when 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).



         Plaintiff was born August 3, 1954. (AR 26.) Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits March 15, 2010. (AR 272-77.) The application was denied on initial review and again on reconsideration, after which Plaintiff requested that her claim be heard before an ALJ. (AR 119-20, 155-60, 161.) An ALJ held a hearing on August 8, 2011, and on October 4, 2011, returned an unfavorable decision. (AR 37-80, 121-138.) On June 19, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the matter for a new hearing and decision. (AR 143-46.) A remand hearing was held on June 4, 2015. (AR 81-118.) On October 8, 2015, the ALJ again found Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 12-36.)

         The ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process to guide the decision. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2007, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 24, 2002. (AR 17, 18.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a history of level 1 anterior cervical spine fusion at ¶ 3-4 for a herniated disc in May 2004 with continuing symptomatology; degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy in C6-7 (with stenosis at lower levels); and sensory changes in C8 level, with some evidence of lower cervical spine C7 radiculopathy. (AR 18.)

         At step three, the ALJ decided that the impairments did not meet or equal any “listed impairment” (AR 19) and found that through the date last insured Plaintiff retained the ...

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