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Gutierrez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

February 20, 2018

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


          JOHN D. EARLY United States Magistrate Judge.



         Plaintiff Blanca Soto de Gutierrez (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on June 22, 2017, seeking review of the denial of her application for Disabled Widow's Benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”). The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge. On February 2, 2018, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation addressing their respective positions (“Jt. Stip”). The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument and as such, this matter now is ready for decision.



         On July 30, 2013, Plaintiff applied for disabled widow's benefits, [1]alleging disability beginning August 28, 2012. Administrative Record (“AR”) 171-77. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. AR 92-96, 100-05, 106-08. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 10, 2016. AR 44-66.

         On March 21, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 22-43. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 28, 2012. AR 30. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “chronic vertigo; cervicocranial syndrome; degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine; radiculopathy of the lumbar spine; and status post right rotator cuff repair.” Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. AR 31. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations (AR 32):

[Plaintiff] can lift and carry 20 occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit, stand, and walk for up to six hours each in an eight-hour day; can frequently use hand controls with right upper extremity; can engage in frequent reaching in all directions with the right upper extremity; can perform frequent handling and fingering with the right upper extremity; can engage in occasional postural activities but cannot perform climbing of ladders and scaffolds; should not be exposed to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts; and should not operate a motor vehicle.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as an electronics inspector (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) 726.381-010). AR 37. The ALJ also made an alternative finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process, concluding that Plaintiff was also capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including: cafeteria attendant (DOT 311.677-010); toy assembler (DOT 731.687-034); inspector, hand packager (DOT 559.687-074). AR 38-39. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. AR 39.

         Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. AR 167-68. On May 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-6. This action followed.



         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review a decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings should be upheld if they are free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (as amended); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means 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). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a 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 Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The standard of review is “highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21; see also Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (“Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than ...

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