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Blaze v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

November 20, 2017

MARK BLAZE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN D. EARLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff Mark Blaze (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint on November 4, 2016 seeking review of a denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”). Pursuant to consents of the parties, the case has been assigned to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for all purposes. (Dkt. Nos. 17, 21, 22). Consistent with the Order Re: Procedures in Social Security Appeal (Dkt. No. 9), the parties filed a Joint Stipulation addressing their respective positions. (Dkt. No. 27 (“Jt. Stip.”).)

         The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument and as such, this matter is now ready for decision.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision denying benefits to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence” is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations and internal punctuation omitted). The standard of review of a decision by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) is “highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Section 405(g) permits a court to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The reviewing court may also remand the matter to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for further proceedings. Id.

         “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's, 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.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (court will uphold Commissioner's decision when evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation). However, the Court may only review the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination, and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which the ALJ did not rely. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted); see also Orn, 495 F.3d at 630 (citation omitted).

         Lastly, even if an ALJ erred, a reviewing court will still uphold the decision if the error was inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination, or where, despite the error, the ALJ's path “may reasonably be discerned, ” even if the ALJ explained the decision “with less than ideal clarity.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations, internal punctuation omitted).

         B. Standard for Determining Disability Benefits

         When the claimant's case has proceeded to consideration by an ALJ, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation to determine at each step if the claimant is or is not disabled. See Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110 (citing, inter alia, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)). First, the ALJ considers whether the claimant currently performs “substantial gainful activity.” Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to a second step to determine if the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months. Id. If so, the ALJ proceeds to a third step to determine if the claimant's impairments render the claimant disabled because they “meet or equal” any of the “listed impairments” set forth in the Social Security regulations. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1; see also Rounds, 807 F.3d at 1001. If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a “listed impairment, ” before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), that is, what the claimant can do on a sustained basis despite the limitations from her impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step and determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform her past relevant work, either as she performed it when she worked in the past, or as that same job is generally performed in the national economy. See Stacy v. Colvin, 825 F.3d 563, 569 (9th Cir. 2016) (citing, inter alia, SSR 82-61); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 416.960(b).

         If the claimant cannot perform her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to a fifth and final step to determine whether there is any other work, in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that the claimant can perform and that exists in “significant numbers” in either the national or regional economies. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100-01 (9th Cir. 1999). If the claimant can do other work, she is not disabled; if the claimant cannot do other work and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled. See Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(b)(3).

         The claimant generally bears the burden at each of steps one through four to show that she is disabled or that she meets the requirements to proceed to the next step; the claimant bears the ultimate burden to show that she is disabled. See, e.g., Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110; Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995). However, at step five, the ALJ has a “limited” burden of production to identify representative jobs that the claimant can perform and that exist in “significant” numbers in the economy. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(1)-(2), 416.960(c)(1)-(2); Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100.

         III. BACKGROUND AND ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff was born on October 28, 1962. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 168.) On September 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI benefits, claiming disability beginning May 23, 2012. (Id. at 183-93.) After his applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration (id. at 115-25, 126-34), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. (Id. at 149-50.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before the ALJ on April 8, 2015. (Id. at 71-114.)

         On May 7, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (Id. at 49-64.) At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had engaged in no substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Id. at 54-55.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, cataracts in his right eye, peripheral arterial disease, and bilateral trigger finger. (Id. at 55.) At step three, the ALJ found that neither the impairments nor combination of impairments met or equaled a listed impairment. (Id. at 56-57.) Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had an RFC to perform light work with no more than frequent use of hands bilaterally; occasional climbing of stairs and ramps; never climbing ladders, scaffolds or ropes; and avoid exposure to ordinary workplace hazards such as boxes on the floor, doors ajar, unprotected heights, and moving machinery. (Id. at 57.) At step four, the ALJ found that ...


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