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Holbrook v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 27, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Kenneth Holbrook asserts he is entitled to benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge erred in evaluating his ability to work, and seeks judicial review of the decision to deny his applications for benefits. Because the ALJ did not err in finding Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work, the decision is AFFIRMED and Defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.

         I. Procedural History

         On April 30, 2013, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. (AR at 10) In each application, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning in July 1, 2011. (Id.) The Social Security Administration denied her applications at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (See id.) After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before an ALJ on June 10, 2015. (Id.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on July 28, 2015. (Id. at 10-20) When the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 14, 2016 (id. at 1-3), the ALJ's findings became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         II. 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).

         III. Disability Benefits

         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish he 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).

         IV. 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. Administrative Hearing Testimony

         Plaintiff testified that in 2009, he worked at Northgate Shell as “a manager… and a tow truck driver.” (AR at 38) When asked to describe his duties, Plaintiff stated: “I'd drive a tow truck or --people -- help them on the freeway… and get off the freeway, bring them to the shop. And then have my mechanic repair their car under my vision [sic].” (Id.) He reported he was unable to “lift more than maybe five pounds, ” including items such as “a two pound alternator [and] half a pound water pump.” (Id. at 38-39) In addition, Plaintiff said he “always had someone to help [him] do the lifting on the heavy stuff.” (Id. at 61)

         Plaintiff said he also worked at a different shop where the “only thing [he] did…was deal with the customers and drive the tow truck.” (AR at 39) He reported that in his role as a manager there, he hired and fired employees and was not responsible to anyone else for the management of the organization. (Id. at 58)

         Using the Dictionary of Occupational Titles[2], Vocational expert Thomas Dechelet (“the VE”) classified Plaintiff's past work within the past fifteen years as the following: janitor, DOT 382.664-010; auto technician or auto mechanic, DOT 621.637-010; manager/ supervisor, DOT 620.131-014; bike repairer, DOT 639.681-010; and tow car driver, DOT 919.663-026. (AR at 59-63)

         The VE reported the Dictionary of Occupational Titles defined the tow car driver position and auto technician positions as requiring medium exertion, as would the position of shop mechanic. (AR at 61, 63) According to the VE, if Plaintiff was not “capable of doing medium [mechanic work] -- it's not being done.” (Id. at 61) However, the VE said, taking Plaintiff's testimony “at face value, ” then Plaintiff performed the work at the light exertional level. (Id. at 61-62) The VE testified the position of manager/supervisor required light work. (Id. at 62) Further, the VE stated Plaintiff obtained ...

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