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Fernandez v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 29, 2018

ROSA FERNANDEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[1], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER DIRECTING ENTRY OF JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF DEFENDANT, NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, AND AGAINST PLAINTIFF ROSA FERNANDEZ

          JENNIFER L. THURSTON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Rosa Fernandez 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 determining Plaintiff's residual functional capacity. Because the ALJ applied the proper legal standards and the decision is supported by substantial evidence, the administrative decision is AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         In January 2009, Plaintiff “filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2007.” (Doc. 12-5 at 8) The Social Security Administration denied her application at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (Id.) Plaintiff requested a hearing, and testified before an ALJ on March 24, 2011. (Id.) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on April 7, 2011, which became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (Id. at 8-12)

         In February 2013, Plaintiff again filed applications for benefits, in which she alleged disability beginning February 22, 2007. (See Doc. 12-3 at 16) However, Plaintiff later “amended the alleged onset date to July 20, 2011 to follow the date of the previous Administrative Law Judge decision and [her] 45th birthday.” (Id.) The Social Security Administration denied her applications at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (See id.) Plaintiff requested a hearing on these applications, and testified before an ALJ on March 11, 2015. (Id. at 16; Doc. 12-4) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on May 28, 2015. (Id. at 13-23) Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which denied the request on August 19, 2016. (Id. at 2-4) Therefore, the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff was not disabled became the final decision of the 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 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. Maounis 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 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 Evidence[2]

         On January 6, 2012, Dr. De la Rosa reviewed the medical record and noted Plaintiff had been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine. (Doc. 12-10 at 72-76) According to Dr. De la Rosa, Plaintiff could lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk about six hours in an eight-hour day, and sit about six hours in an eight-hour day. (Id. at 73) In addition, Dr. De la Rosa determined Plaintiff could occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally crouch and crawl; and frequently stoop, kneel, and balance. (Id. at 74) Dr. De la Rosa opined Plaintiff was limited with her ability to reach, but was unlimited with gross manipulation, fine manipulation, and feeling. (Id.)

         In August 2012, Plaintiff underwent an MRI of her cervical spine, which showed a “disc protrusion [that] resulted in mod[erate] to severe foraminal stenosis.” (Doc. 12-12 at 3)

         In February 2013, Dr. Arturo Palencia, who worked at the Pain Institute of Central California, noted Plaintiff's medical history included an “unspecified type of arthritis, ” rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and anemia. (Doc. 12-12 at 4) Plaintiff continued to receive treatment for her neck pain, which she described as “constant and varie[d] in intensity.” (Id. at 3) Dr. Palencia noted Plaintiff's treatment history included “acupuncture, injections and [p]hysical therapy.” (Id.) Plaintiff told Dr. Palencia that “her pain would resolve for 2 months following each injection.” (Id.) Dr. Palencia determined Plaintiff had a “normal … [range of motion], muscle strength and tone, and stability” in her upper extremities. ...


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