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Maserang v. Colvin

United States District Court, S.D. California

August 29, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Hon. Mitchell D. Dembin, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Zscaquline C. Maserang (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff moves the Court for summary judgment reversing the Commissioner and ordering an award of benefits, or, in the alternative, to remand the case for further administrative proceedings. (ECF No. 16). Defendant moved for summary judgment affirming the denial of benefits. (ECF No. 19).

         For the reasons expressed herein, the Court recommends that the case be REMANDED to the ALJ for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges that she became disabled on May 17, 2011. (A.R. 176, 182).[1] Plaintiff's date of birth, November 2, 1973, categorizes her as a younger person on the alleged disability onset date. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963; (A.R. 28).

         A. Procedural History

         On January 17, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for social security disability insurance benefits, and on January 31, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income. (A.R. 21). Plaintiff had previously filed for disability insurance benefits and supplementary security income on November 5, 2008. (A.R. 62). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David L. Wurzel denied those claims on May 16, 2011. (A.R. 59-73). On December 13, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 78).

         Plaintiff's January 2013 claims were initially denied on May 17, 2013, and denied upon reconsideration on October 3, 2013. (Id.). On September 19, 2014, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing in San Diego, California, before ALJ Jay Levine. (A.R. 36). Plaintiff and impartial vocational expert Harlan S. Stock testified. (A.R. 21).

         On January 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (A.R. 21, 29). Plaintiff appealed, and the Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 1). Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id.).

         On August 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF No. 1). On November 21, 2016, Defendant answered and lodged the administrative record with the Court. (ECF Nos. 10, 11). On April 17, 2017, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 16). On May 16, 2017, the Commissioner cross-moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 19). Plaintiff did not reply to the Commissioner's response.


         A. Legal Standard

         The supplemental security income program provides benefits to disabled persons without substantial resources and with little income. 42 U.S.C. § 1382. To qualify, a claimant must establish an inability to engage in “substantial gainful activity” because of 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). The disabling impairment must be so severe that, considering age, education, and work experience, the claimant cannot engage in any kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner makes this assessment through a process of up to five steps. First, the claimant must not be engaged in substantial, gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). Second, the claimant must have a “severe” impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). Third, the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment is compared to a list of impairments that are presumed severe enough to preclude work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment meets or is equivalent to the requirements for one of the listed impairments, benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or is not equivalent to the requirements of a listed impairment, the analysis continues to a fourth and possibly fifth step and considers the claimant's residual functional capacity. At the fourth step, the claimant's relevant work history is considered with the claimant's residual functional capacity. If the claimant can perform the claimant's past relevant work, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). At the fifth step, if the claimant is found unable to perform the claimant's past relevant work, the issue is whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. If the claimant cannot do other work that exists in the national economy, benefits are awarded. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

         Sections 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act allow unsuccessful applicants to seek judicial review of a final agency decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The scope of judicial review is limited and the Commissioner's denial of benefits “will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Brawner v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988) (quoting Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 529 (9th Cir. 1986)).

         Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. Sandqathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). “[I]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). The court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Desrosiers v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). If the evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the ALJ's decision. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). When the evidence is inconclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts in the testimony are functions solely of the Secretary.” Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982).

         The ALJ has a special duty in social security cases to fully and fairly develop the record in order to make an informed decision on a claimant's entitlement to disability benefits. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 849 (9th Cir. 1991). Because disability hearings are not adversarial in nature, the ALJ must “inform himself [or herself] about the facts relevant to his decision, ” even if the claimant is represented by counsel. Id. (quoting Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458, 471 n.1 (1983)).

         Even if a reviewing court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions, the court must set aside the decision if the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and reaching his or her decision. Benitez v. Califano, 573 F.2d 653, 655 (9th Cir. 1978). Section 405(g) permits a court to enter a judgment affirming, modifying or reversing the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The reviewing court may also remand the matter to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. Id.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 17, 2011, through the date of the ALJ's decision, January 14, 2015. (A.R. 29). The ALJ also found Plaintiff did not show changed circumstances sufficient to overcome the presumption of nondisability from the previous ALJ decision on May 16, 2011. (A.R. 22).

         The ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: polyarthralgia; arthritis; chondromalacia patellar, bilateral knees; fibromyalgia; obesity; degenerative disc disease (“DDD”) and joint disease, lumbar and cervical spine; and hypertension. (A.R. 24). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments meeting or medically equivalent to the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). (A.R. 25). Specifically, the ALJ found that “[n]o treating or examining physician has recorded findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical findings that are the same or equivalent to those of any listed impairment of the Listing of Impairments.” (Id.). The ALJ considered listings 1.02, 1.03, 1.04, 4.00 and 14.09.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform light work . . . except [Plaintiff] can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; [Plaintiff] can stand and/or walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, in ½ hour intervals; [Plaintiff] can sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; [Plaintiff] cannot push and/or pull with either leg; [Plaintiff] cannot work around unprotected heights, temperature extremes, and vibration; [Plaintiff] cannot walk on uneven ground; [Plaintiff] cannot climb ladders, but she can occasionally climb stairs and ramps; [Plaintiff] can occasionally stoop and bend; [Plaintiff] cannot balance; [Plaintiff] can perform frequent ...

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