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Wright v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 15, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.




         Plaintiff Deanna Wright[1] (“Plaintiff”) challenges the Commissioner's[2] denial of her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and the action is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Order.


         On September 12, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for DIB alleging disability beginning December 29, 2012. (AR 22, 77.) Her application was denied on November 14, 2013. (AR 88.) Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing, and a hearing was held on October 22, 2014. (AR 96-97, 37.) Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified, along with an impartial medical expert and an impartial vocational expert. (AR 37-76.) On January 14, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, pursuant to the Social Security Act, [3] since December 29, 2012. (AR 32.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-7.) Plaintiff filed this action on July 12, 2016. (Dkt. No. 1.)

         The ALJ followed a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (AR 24.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post release surgeries, left cervical radiculopathy, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the bilateral knees, obesity, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, lumbar spondylosis, and fibromyalgia. (AR 24.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (AR 26.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work with the following additional limitations:

[T]he claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she can stand and/or walk for four hours out of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; she can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; she can occasionally use the upper extremities for pushing or pulling; she can occasionally use the lower extremities for operating foot controls; she can occasionally climb stairs, bend, balance, and stoop; she cannot climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; she cannot kneel, crouch, crawl, or work at unprotected heights; she is precluded from work above shoulder level with both upper extremities; and the claimant is limited to frequent but not constant gross and fine manipulations with both upper extremities. (AR 26.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 30-31.) At step five, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had acquired work skills from past relevant work that were transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 31-32.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 32.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. A court must affirm an ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence, and if the proper legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         “[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather, a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the Secretary's conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotations omitted). “‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ' the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see also Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.”). The Court may review only “the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination 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) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ: (1) erred in the RFC determination because Plaintiff should have been found limited to only occasional use of her hands; (2) erred in assessing Plaintiff's testimony regarding her pain and limitations; (3) erred in relying on the VE's testimony at step five because the VE's testimony conflicted with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; (4) erred at step five because the ALJ did not properly find other jobs with transferable skills; and (5) erred in failing to consider the third-party statement of Plaintiff's mother. (Joint Submission (“JS”) 3-7, 10-20, 27-35, 37-47.) The Commissioner contends that the RFC is supported by substantial evidence, the ALJ properly assessed Plaintiff's subjective statements, the ALJ did not err at step five because she properly relied on the VE's testimony and properly found other jobs with transferable skills, and ...

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