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Rhan v. Berryhill

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

February 23, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Cassandra Lynn Rahn (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint on March 30, 2017, seeking review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits 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. Consistent with the Order Re: Procedures in Social Security Appeal, on February 9, 2018, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation addressing their respective positions. Dkt. No. 21 (“Jt. Stip.”). The matter is now ready for decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 4, 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2009. Administrative Record (“AR”) 246-54. After her application was denied initially (AR 142) and on reconsideration (AR 207-12), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on July 6, 2016. AR 77-119. Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), as a vocational expert (“VE”). Id.

         On September 16, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 29-45. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; degenerative disc disease; mild degenerative joint disease, bilateral knees; affective disorder; anxiety disorder.” Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations: “simple instructions; some routine tasks; no constant high production pace; occasional work with or in proximity to others; off task up to 10% of the time, but not constantly; occasionally work with public, coworkers, and supervisors; unlimited balancing; occasional all other posturals; occasional reaching overhead bilaterally; avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases.” AR 36. The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was incapable of performing past relevant work as a rubber goods inspector. AR 38. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was capable of performing the following jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: marker, retail (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) 209.587-034), housekeeper/cleaner (DOT 323.687-014), and advertiser materials distributor (DOT 230.687-010) and concluded Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 39.

         Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. AR 26-27. On January 31, 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.


         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 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 and remanding the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         “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). 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).

         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).



         The parties present one issue: “Whether an unexplained conflict exists between the [VE's] testimony and the information in the DOT which would warrant reversal.” Jt. Stip. at 4. Plaintiff argues that the testimony offered by the VE upon which the ALJ relied at step five of the disability determination, was in conflict with the occupational requirements in the DOT. Id. at 6-10. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ fully considered Plaintiff's impairments in assessing her ability ...

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