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Sanchez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 16, 2017

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





         On July 26, 2016, plaintiff Efran Cornejo Sanchez filed a complaint against defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), [1] seeking a review of a denial of period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Both parties have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

         Plaintiff presents three issues for decision: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) properly considered and rejected the opinion of Dr. George Watkin, an examining physician; (2) whether the ALJ's step four determination is supported by substantial evidence; and (3) whether the ALJ failed to evaluate plaintiff's back impairment after July 2013. Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Complaint (“P. Mem.”) at 3-18.

         Having carefully studied the parties' written submissions, the decision of the ALJ, and the Administrative Record (“AR”), the court concludes that, as detailed herein, the ALJ erred in failing to explicitly reject Dr. Watkin's opinion, and also erred at step four, although the step four error was harmless. In light of the error with Dr. Watkin's opinion, the court remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.



         Plaintiff, who was fifty-four years old on his alleged disability onset date, completed the third or fourth grade. AR at 34-35, 160. He has past relevant work as a landscaper. Id. at 55.

         On May 10, 2012, plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging he has been disabled since May 14, 2010 due to torn ligaments or tendons in his left arm, a torn left shoulder (rotator cuff), a torn right knee, and a torn right rotator cuff. Id. at 160, 164. The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application, after which he filed a request for reconsideration, which was denied. Id. at 88-92, 96, 98-102. Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 104.

         On May 19, 2014, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 34-63. At the hearing, the ALJ also heard testimony from Troy Scott, a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. at 54-60. On June 16, 2014, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim for benefits. Id. at 15-27.

         Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 14, 2010, the alleged onset date. Id. at 20.

         At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: lumbar spine strain, left shoulder residual impingement syndrome status post arthroscopic surgery, left elbow/forearm tendosis status post bicep/tendon repair surgery, and right knee patellofemoral pain syndrome status post arthroscopic surgery. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments, whether individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”). Id. at 22.

         The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), [2] and determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work, with the limitations that he can: perform postural maneuvers on a frequent basis; only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; frequently reach overhead with his dominant right upper extremity; and frequently reach, handle, and finger with his left upper extremity. Id. at 22-23. In addition, he has to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. Id. at 22.

         The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a landscaper. Id. at 26. Consequently, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 27.

         Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. Id. at 8-12. After receiving additional evidence, the Appeals Council again denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-6.

         The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.



         This court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The findings and decision of the Commissioner must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001) (as amended). But if the court determines that the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision to deny benefits. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035. Substantial evidence is such “relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding, the reviewing court must review the administrative record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. The ALJ's decision “‘cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998)). If the evidence can reasonably ...

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