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Leonard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 24, 2017

JOSEPH L. LEONARD, Plaintiff,
v.
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, 20].

          BETH LAB SON FREEMAN United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Leonard, 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.

         Leonard 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.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Standard of Review

         District 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)).

         A court “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. Id.

         Finally, 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 asserts.” Id.

         B. Standard for Determining Disability

         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).

         “To 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The ALJ 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 ...


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