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Haro v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 6, 2017

LETICIA HARO, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ALLISON CLAIRE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34.[1] For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be GRANTED, and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment will be DENIED. The matter will be reversed and remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on January 14, 2013. Administrative Record (“AR”) 14.[2] The disability onset date was alleged to be December 19, 2012. Id. The application was disapproved initially and on reconsideration. Id. On August 18, 2014, ALJ Daniel G. Heely presided over the hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR 29 - 53 (transcript). Plaintiff, who appeared with her counsel Jeffrey Milam, was present at the hearing. AR 29. Jo Ann Yoshioka, a Vocational Expert (“VE”), also testified at the hearing. Id.

         On October 27, 2014, the ALJ found plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d). AR 14-22 (decision), 23-26 (exhibit list). On March 22, 2016, after receiving Exhibit 16E, Representative Brief dated February 11, 2015 as an additional exhibit, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. AR 1-5 (decision and additional exhibit list).

         Plaintiff filed this action on May 25, 2016. ECF No. 1; see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. ECF Nos. 7, 11. The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 17 (plaintiff's summary judgment motion), 19 (Commissioner's summary judgment motion), 20 (plaintiff's reply).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on April 20, 1966, and accordingly was, at age 46, a younger person under the regulations, when she filed her application.[3] AR 55. Plaintiff has at least a high school education, and can communicate in English. AR 178, 305. Plaintiff worked as a school bus driver from December of 1995 through December of 2012. AR 180.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld “if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards.” Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1011 (9th Cir. 2003). “‘The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ..'” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” but “may be less than a preponderance.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). “It means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted). “While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those ‘reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice.” Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Although this court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Desrosiers v. Secretary of HHS, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (“The court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion; it may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.”).

         “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). However, the court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003) (“It was error for the district court to affirm the ALJ's credibility decision based on evidence that the ALJ did not discuss”).

         The court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is “clear from the record that an ALJ's error was ‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.'” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Commissioner, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         IV. RELEVANT LAW

         Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income are available for every eligible individual who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(d)(1)(B)(ii) (DIB), 1381a (SSI). Plaintiff is “disabled” if she is “‘unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . ..'” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) (quoting identically worded provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A)).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled and entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (setting forth the “five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability” under Title II and Title XVI). The following summarizes the sequential evaluation:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b).

Step two: Does the claimant have a “severe” impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the ...

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