United States District Court, C.D. California
DECISION AND ORDER
E. BIANCHINI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
of 2013, Plaintiff Cynthia Lee Towey applied for Disability
Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income benefits
under the Social Security Act. The Commissioner of Social
Security denied the applications.
by and through her attorney, Lawrence D. Rohlfing, Esq.,
commenced this action seeking judicial review of the
Commissioner's denial of benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405 (g) and 1383 (c)(3).
parties consented to the jurisdiction of a United States
Magistrate Judge. (Docket No. 13, 15, 24, 25). On May 1,
2017, this case was referred to the undersigned pursuant to
General Order 05-07. (Docket No. 23).
applied for benefits on July 27, 2013, alleging disability
beginning March 31, 2009. (T at 195-200,
201-204). The applications were denied initially and
on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).
November 25, 2014, a hearing was held before ALJ Joan Ho. (T
at 38). Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified.
(T at 42-63). The ALJ also received testimony from Katie
Macy-Powers, a vocational expert. (T at 64-68).
January 14, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision denying
the applications for benefits. (T at 13-30). The ALJ's
decision became the Commissioner's final decision on May
6, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review. (T at 1-7).
5, 2016, Plaintiff, acting by and through her counsel, filed
this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's
denial of benefits. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner
interposed an Answer on November 23, 2016. (Docket No. 20).
The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on February 15, 2017.
(Docket No. 17).
reviewing the pleadings, Joint Stipulation, and
administrative record, this Court finds that the
Commissioner's decision must be reversed and this case
remanded for further proceedings.
Sequential Evaluation Process
Social Security Act (“the Act”) defines
disability as the “inability 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
twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A),
1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act also provides that a claimant shall
be determined to be under a disability only if any
impairments are of such severity that he or she is not only
unable to do previous work but cannot, considering his or her
age, education and work experiences, engage in any other
substantial work which exists in the national economy. 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Thus, the
definition of disability consists of both medical and
vocational components. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d
1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether a person is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step one
determines if the person is engaged in substantial gainful
activities. If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404. 1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If not,
the decision maker proceeds to step two, which determines
whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or
combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§
claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of
impairments, the disability claim is denied. If the
impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third
step, which compares the claimant's impairment(s) with a
number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner
to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If
the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments,
the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the
impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling,
the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, which determines
whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing
work which was performed in the past. If the claimant is able
to perform previous work, he or she is deemed not disabled.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
At this step, the claimant's residual functional capacity
(RFC) is considered. If the claimant cannot perform past
relevant work, the fifth and final step in the process
determines whether he or she is able to perform other work in
the national economy in view of his or her residual
functional capacity, age, education, and past work
experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482
U.S. 137 (1987).
initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish
a prima facie case of entitlement to disability
benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921
(9thCir. 1971); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d
1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The initial burden is
met once the claimant establishes that a mental or physical
impairment prevents the performance of previous work. The
burden then shifts, at step five, to the Commissioner to show
that (1) plaintiff can perform other substantial gainful
activity and (2) a “significant number of jobs exist in
the national economy” that the claimant can perform.
Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th
Standard of Review
has provided a limited scope of judicial review of a
Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A Court
must uphold a Commissioner's decision, made through an
ALJ, when the determination is not based on legal error and
is supported by substantial evidence. See Jones v.
Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985);
Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097
(9th Cir. 1999).
[Commissioner's] determination that a plaintiff is not
disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported
by substantial evidence.” Delgado v. Heckler,
722 F.2d 570, 572 (9th Cir. 1983)(citing 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere
scintilla, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112,
1119 n 10 (9th Cir. 1975), but less than a
preponderance. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599,
601-02 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence
“means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept
as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(citations omitted).
“[S]uch inferences and conclusions as the
[Commissioner] may reasonably draw from the evidence”
will also be upheld. Mark v. Celebreeze, 348 F.2d
289, 293 (9th Cir. 1965). On review, the Court
considers the record as a whole, not just the evidence
supporting the decision of the Commissioner. Weetman v.
Sullivan, 877 F.2d 20, 22 (9th Cir.
1989)(quoting Kornock v. Harris, 648 F.2d 525, 526
(9th Cir. 1980)).
the role of the Commissioner, not this Court, to resolve
conflicts in evidence. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400.
If evidence supports more than one rational interpretation,
the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Allen
v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9thCir. 1984).
Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence
will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were
not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.
Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services,
839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987). Thus, if there
is substantial evidence to support the administrative
findings, or if there is conflicting evidence that will
support a finding of either disability or non-disability, the
finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. Sprague v.
Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir.
determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since March 31, 2009, the alleged onset
date, and met the insured status requirements of the Social
Security Act through December 31, 2014 (the “date last
insured”). (T at 18). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar