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Truong v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 25, 2017

MINH KIM TRUONG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER: (1) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; and (2) GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [Doc. Nos. 12-1, 17-1].

          MARILYN L. HUFF, DISTRICT JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         On November 7, 2016, Plaintiff Minh Kim Truong (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C § 405(g) requesting judicial review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's (“Defendant”) final decision denying her disability benefits. (Doc. No. 1.) On April 9, 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 proceedings. (Doc. No. 12.) On May 7, 2017, Defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion, requesting the Court affirm the Commissioner's final decision. (Doc. Nos. 13, 14.) On May 11, 2017, Defendant filed an amended cross-motion for summary judgment and an amended response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion. (Doc. Nos. 17, 18.) On June 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the cross-motion for summary judgment and a reply. (Doc. No. 19.) On June 26, 2017, Defendant filed a reply. (Doc. No. 18.) For the reasons below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants Defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment, and affirms the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         BACKGROUND

         On March 22, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits, claiming a disability onset date of February 15, 2012. (AR234-40.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application for benefits initially on June 10, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on January 31, 2014. (AR90-93, 95-99.) On February 27, 2014, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ. (AR101-02.)

         On March 30, 2015, an ALJ held a hearing where Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. (AR40-46.) At the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from a medical expert and a vocational expert. (AR46-64.) In a decision dated May 11, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a mood disorder and myositis. (AR13, 29.) Despite this finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR13-16.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, but not work involving unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. (AR16.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing routine and noncomplex tasks, but needed to avoid sustained, intense interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Id.) In light of these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work. (AR28.) Based on this RFC assessment and Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, specifically the representative occupations of industrial cleaner and kitchen helper. (AR28-29.) Based on these findings, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from February 15, 2012, the alleged onset date, through May 11, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. (AR29.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. (AR1.) Upon requesting review by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff also submitted an opinion letter from Dr. Henderson and additional medical records from Kaiser Permanente. (AR1106-1293.) The Appeals Council included this additional evidence in the record. (AR6.) On September 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. (AR1-4.)

         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)(1)(A)). “To determine whether a claimant meets this definition, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation.” Id.; see 20 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.
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.
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.
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 evaluation proceeds to the fifth and final step.[1]
Step 5. Is the claimant able to do any other work? If not, then the claimant is “disabled” and therefore entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant is able to do other work, then the Commissioner must establish that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that claimant can do. There are two ways for the Commissioner to meet the burden of showing that there is other work in “significant numbers” in the national economy that claimant can do: (1) by the testimony of a vocational expert, or (2) by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is “not disabled” and therefore not entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, then the claimant is “disabled” and therefore entitled to disability benefits.

Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         II. Standards of Review for Social Security Determinations

         Unsuccessful applicants for social security disability benefits may seek judicial review of a Commissioner's final decision in federal district court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). “As with other agency decisions, federal court review of social security determinations is limited.” Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). “An ALJ's disability determination should be upheld unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). “‘Substantial evidence means 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.'” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.1995)). The district court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. “‘Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, we may not substitute our judgment for the ALJ's.'” Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222 (quoting Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007)). “‘The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.'” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010 (quoting Shalala, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         Further, even when the ALJ commits legal error, a reviewing court will uphold the decision where that error is harmless. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099; see also Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (“We have long recognized that harmless error principles apply in the Social Security Act context.”). “[A]n ALJ's error is harmless where it is ‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.'” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115. “‘[T]he burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.'” Id. at 1111 (quoting Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)).

         III. Analysis

         In denying Plaintiff's disability application, the ALJ's analysis proceeded through each of the five steps. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in a substantially gainful activity since her application date of February 15, 2012. (AR13.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was suffering from the following severe impairments: a mood disorder and myotisis. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, independently or in combination, met one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) Next, in order to complete step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC allowed her to perform medium work, with the exception of work involving unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. (AR16.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing routine and noncomplex tasks, but must avoid sustained, intense interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Id.)

         In so finding, the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's alleged disability. Plaintiff alleged that her disability arose from four sources: fibromyalgia, neuropathy, depression, and poor coordination. (See generally AR40-46.) Plaintiff claimed these conditions resulted in debilitating pain that prevented ...


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