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Duke v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 24, 2017

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



         Raylene Duke asserts she is entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge erred in relying upon the testimony of a vocational expert, and seeks judicial review of the denial of her application for benefits. Because the ALJ failed to resolve a conflict between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the matter is REMANDED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on December 27, 2012, alleging disability beginning December 21, 2012. (Doc. 7-3 at 12) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, and she testified before an ALJ on December 15, 2014. (Id. at 12, 32) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on December 31, 2014. (Id. at 12-24) When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision on April 20, 2016 (id. at 2-4), the ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).


         District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, because “[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). If a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other substantial gainful employment. Maounois v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).


         To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. The ALJ must consider testimonial and objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927.

         Pursuant to this five-step process, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset date of December 21, 2012. (Doc. 7-3 at 14) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff's severe impairments included: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine as well as obesity.” (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled a Listing. (Id. at 17) Next, the ALJ determined:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with the following modifications: She has the ability to stand and walk a maximum of four hours out of an eight hour day with the use of a walker. She has the ability to sit up to six hours out of an eight hour day; occasionally balance, stoops, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb stairs; but never climb ladders. She requires work that involves no exposure to vibrations such as hand tools or hazards such as unprotected heights, open or moving machinery parts and moving motor vehicles.

(Id. at 18-19) Based upon the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ determined “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, ” such as office helper, order caller, and small parts assembler. (Id. at 22-23) Consequently, the ALJ concluded ...

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