United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division
JOSEPH L. LEONARD, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART
PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING IN PART
AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT; AND REMANDING TO THE AGENCY [RE: ECF 16,
LAB SON FREEMAN United States District Judge.
Joseph L. Leonard appeals a final decision of Defendant Nancy
A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying
his application for a period of disability and disability
benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before
the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment, which have been fully briefed. See
Pl.'s Mot., ECF 16; Def.'s Mot., ECF 20. Upon
consideration of the briefing and for the reasons set forth
below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART
Plaintiff's motion and GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART
Defendant's cross motion, and REMANDS the case to the
Agency for further proceedings.
a United States citizen, was born on July 6, 1977. Admin R.
(“AR”) 34. He graduated from high school and
attended some junior college. Id. at 35. Most
recently, Leonard worked as a regional facilities manager for
a law firm in Mountain View, California. Id. at 35.
In this role, he was responsible for budgeting for the
facilities needs of the firm's five offices, ran the
day-to-day operations for cleanliness, ensured mechanical
systems functioned properly, assisted with ergonomic issues,
reconfigured and built furniture, oversaw security, and
oversaw the security programing. Id. at 36. On
September 25, 2012, Leonard filed an application for a period
of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging
disability beginning September 23, 2011. Id. at
124-25. Leonard claims disability resulting from headaches,
numbness in his hands, depression, and poor memory.
Id. at 68. Leonard was 34 years old on his alleged
onset date. Id. at 124.
was denied benefits initially and upon reconsideration.
Id. at 68-72, 76-80. He requested and received a
hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”) on September 30, 2014. During that
hearing, Leonard advised the ALJ that he was seeking benefits
only for a closed period from September 23, 2011, through
March 7, 2014. Id. at 33. At the hearing, ALJ Betty
Roberts Barbeito heard testimony from Leonard himself; Dr.
Keith Holan, an impartial medical expert; and Victoria Rei,
an impartial vocational expert (“VE”).
Id. at 11, 28-65 (transcript). On January 16, 2015,
ALJ Barbeito issued a written decision finding Leonard not
disabled and thus not entitled to benefits. Id. at
11-23. The ALJ's decision was affirmed by the Appeals
Council on May 13, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.
Id. at 1-6. Leonard now seeks judicial review of the
denial of benefits.
Standard of Review
courts “have power to enter, upon the pleadings and
transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or
reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security, with or without remanding the cause for a
rehearing.” 42 USC § 405(g). However, “a
federal court's review of Social Security determinations
is quite limited.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806
F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015). Federal courts
“‘leave it to the ALJ to determine credibility,
resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities
in the record.'” Id. (quoting
Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775
F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014)).
“will disturb the Commissioner's decision to deny
benefits only if it is not supported by substantial evidence
or is based on legal error.” Brown-Hunter, 806
F.3d at 492 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
“Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion, and must be more than a mere scintilla, but may
be less than a preponderance.” Rounds v. Comm'r
of Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015)
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). A court
“must consider the evidence as a whole, weighing both
the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts
from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the
evidence is susceptible to more than one rational
interpretation, the ALJ's findings must be upheld if
supported by reasonable inferences drawn from the record.
even when the ALJ commits legal error, the ALJ's decision
will be upheld so long as the error is harmless.
Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492. However, “[a]
reviewing court may not make independent findings based on
the evidence before the ALJ to conclude that the ALJ's
error was harmless.” Id. The court is
“constrained to review the reasons the ALJ
Standard for Determining Disability
benefits are available under Title II of the Social Security
Act when an eligible claimant 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 which has lasted or can be
expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12
months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).
determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required
to employ a five-step sequential analysis, determining: (1)
whether the claimant is doing substantial gainful activity;
(2) whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable
physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments
that has lasted for more than 12 months; (3) whether the
impairment meets or equals one of the listings in the
regulations; (4) whether, given the claimant's residual
functional capacity, the claimant can still do his or her
past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant can make an
adjustment to other work.” Ghanim v. Colvin,
763 F.3d 1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks
and citations omitted). The residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) referenced at step four is what a
claimant can still do despite his or her limitations.
Id. at 1160 n.5. “The burden of proof is on
the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the
Commissioner at step five.” Bray v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009).
determined that Leonard had acquired sufficient quarters of
coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2016. AR 11.
At step one, the ALJ determined that Leonard had not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date
of September 23, 2011. Id. at 13. At step two, the
ALJ found that Leonard had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, obstructive
sleep apnea, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome.
Id. However, the ALJ ...