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Hernandez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 12, 2018

BILL HERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER

          VICTOR E. BIANCHINI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In November of 2010, Plaintiff Bill Hernandez 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 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. 11, 12, 33, 34). On August 16, 2017, this case was referred to the undersigned pursuant to General Order 05-07. (Docket No. 32).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for benefits on November 3, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 8, 2010. (T at 116-22, 708-13).[2] The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On December 5, 2011, a hearing was held before ALJ Helen E. Hesse. (T at 38). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. (T at 41-48, 54-57). The ALJ also received testimony from Alan L. Ey, a vocational expert (T at 57-59), and Dr. Samuel Landau, a medical expert (T at 49-54).

         On January 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the applications for benefits. (T at 16-31). The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision on March 21, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T at 1-6). Plaintiff filed an action seeking judicial review. In a Decision and Order dated March 20, 2014, the Honorable Stephen J. Hillman, United States Magistrate Judge, remanded the matter for further proceedings. (T at 619-23). In sum, Judge Hillman concluded that the ALJ erred by discounting a December 2010 medical opinion because it was unclear who authored the opinion. Judge Hillman directed that further inquiry be made as to the authorship of the opinion and further explanation be provided regarding what weight, if any, should be afforded the opinion. (T at 622-23). In addition, Judge Hillman concluded that the ALJ should have given more careful consideration to an August 2011 opinion provided by a treating physician's assistant. (T at 623).[3]

         A second administrative hearing was held before ALJ Hesse on March 25, 2015. (T at 564). Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testified. (T at 567-75, 577-78, 580-84). The ALJ also received testimony from Susan Allison, a vocational expert (T at 575-77, 584-88), and Dr. Joseph Malancharuvil, a medical expert. (T at 578-80).

         The ALJ issued a decision on May 14, 2015, denying the applications for benefits. (T at 520-540). The ALJ's second decision became the Commissioner's final decision on December 10, 2015, when the Appeals Council denied review. (T at 504-509).

         On January 29, 2016, Plaintiff, acting by and through his counsel, filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Docket No. 1). The Commissioner interposed an Answer on June 28, 2016. (Docket No. 15). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on June 26, 2017. (Docket No. 29).

         After reviewing the pleadings, Joint Stipulation, and administrative record, this Court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed, and this case must be dismissed.

         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 ...


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