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Cole v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 17, 2017

DAVID THOMAS COLE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER: (1) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; AND [DOC. NO. 11] (2) GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [DOC. NO. 18]

          Hon. Marilyn L. Huff United States District Judge.

         On October 21, 2016, David Thomas Cole (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint against Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant”), seeking judicial review of an administrative denial of disability benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. No. 1.) On February 7, 2017, Defendant filed an answer to Plaintiff's complaint and the administrative record. (Doc. Nos. 6, 7.) On March 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting that the Court reverse the Commissioner's final decision and order the payment of benefits, or alternatively, remand the case for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. No. 11.) On June 15, 2017, Defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion, requesting that the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. Nos. 18, 19.) For the reasons below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment, and affirms the Commissioner's final decision.

         BACKGROUND

         On August 23, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, claiming a disability onset date of May 15, 2011. (AR68-69.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits initially on January 9, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on June 7, 2013. (AR77, 89.) On July 5, 2013, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (AR107-08.)

         On September 30, 2014, an ALJ held a hearing where Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (AR40-58.) At the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert. (AR58-65.) In a decision dated April 3, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar spinal stenosis with radiculopathy, disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, disc protrusion of the cervical spine, cervical central canal narrowing with radiculopathy, left hand carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, and diabetes mellitus with neuropathy; but concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a listed impairment. (AR23-25.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the further limitations that the claimant may engage in postural movement occasionally, and may use his hands frequently for fingering, handling, feeling and grasping. (AR25.) Based on this RFC assessment and the testimony from the vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a front desk clerk and a property manager. (AR30.) As a result of these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from May 15, 2011 the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured. (AR31.)

         On May 27, 2015, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (AR14, 15.) On August 31, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. (AR1-3.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. The Legal Standard for Determining Disability

         “A claimant is disabled under Title II of the Social Security Act if he is unable to ‘engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or … can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'” Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(12)(A)). “To determine whether a claimant meets this definition, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation.” Id.; see C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The Ninth Circuit has summarized this process as follows:

The burden of proof is on the claimant as to steps one to four. As to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. If a claimant is found to be “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step in the sequence, there is no need to consider subsequent steps. The five steps are:
Step 1. Is the claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? If so, then the claimant is “not disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act and is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant is not working in a substantially gainful activity, then the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step one and the evaluation proceeds to step two. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).
Step 2. Is the claimant's impairment severe? If not, then the claimant is “not disabled” and is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant's impairment is severe, then the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step two and the evaluation proceeds to step three. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).
Step 3. Does the impairment “meet or equal” one of a list of specific impairments described in the regulations? If so, the claimant is “disabled” and therefore entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step three and the evaluation proceeds to step four. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).
Step 4. Is the claimant able to do any work that he or she has done in the past? If so, then the claimant is “not disabled” and is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant cannot do any work he or she did in the past, then the claimant's case cannot be resolved at step four and the ...

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