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Tarkington v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 26, 2018

DENICE L. TARKINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REMANDING THE ACTION PURSUANT TO SENTENCE FOUR OF 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ORDER DIRECTING ENTRY OF JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF PLAINTIFF DENICE L. TARKINGTON AND AGAINST DEFENDANT NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          JENNIFER L. THURSTON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Denice Tarkington asserts she is entitled to a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge erred in evaluating the medical record and seeks judicial review of the decision to deny her application for benefits. Because the ALJ erred in rejecting limitations identified by Plaintiff's treating physician, the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In May and June 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for benefits, alleging “disability beginning September 8, 2012.” (Doc. 9-8 at 2-4) Plaintiff reported she had “limited reach in [her] left arm as well as strength, ” and that her hands “both have carpal tunnel.” (Doc. 9-9 at 49) Plaintiff also indicated that she had degenerative disc disease in her back, which affected her ability to walk, stand, and sit “for more then (sic) 10 to 15 minutes at a time.” (Id.)

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 9-3 at 18) Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, at which she testified before an ALJ on July 27, 2016. (Id.) The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on September 2, 2016. (Id. at 18-32) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision on November 10, 2016. (Id. at 2-4) Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, because “[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).

         DISABILITY BENEFITS

         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). If a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other substantial gainful employment. Maounois v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).

         ADMINISTRATIVE DETERMINATION

         To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. The ALJ must consider testimonial and objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927.

         A. Relevant Medical Opinions

         Dr. Samuel Rush performed a complete internal medicine evaluation on August 19, 2014, at which Plaintiff said she had “problems with her left shoulder and back.” (Doc. 9-14 at 75) Dr. Rush noted he did not have medical records to review, but Plaintiff reported being “told she has degenerative disc disease.” (Id.) Dr. Rush observed that Plaintiff “walk[ed] slowly and stiffly due to back discomfort and limitation, ” but was “able to walk on [her] toes and … heels.” (Id. at 78) Dr. Rush found Plaintiff's motor strength was “5/5 in the upper extremities and 4/5 in the lower extremities, ” and her senses were “[n]ormal to touch, temperature and pinprick.” (Id.) According to Dr. Rush, Plaintiff was “quite limited in her range of motion in her back” and had “[l]imitation of movement of the left shoulder.” (Id.) Dr. Rush opined Plaintiff was “limited to [lifting and carrying] 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, ” and “cannot reach above should level on the left.” (Id. at 78-79) He also determined Plaintiff had postural limitations and could ...


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