United States District Court, C.D. California, Southern Division
WILLIAM L. RAMAGE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
D. EARLY United States Magistrate Judge
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).
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).
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”). 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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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
OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDING
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.)
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.)
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 ...