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Towey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 15, 2017

CYNTHIA LEE TOWEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          VICTOR E. BIANCHINI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In July 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.[1]

         Plaintiff, 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).

         The 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).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for benefits on July 27, 2013, alleging disability beginning March 31, 2009. (T at 195-200, 201-204).[2] The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         On 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).

         On 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).

         On July 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).

         After 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.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The 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).

         The 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).

         If the 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).

         The 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 Cir. 1984).

         B. Standard of Review

         Congress 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).

         “The [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)).

         It is 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. 1987).

         C. Commissioner's Decision

         The ALJ 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 ...


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