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Banks v. Berryhill

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

April 2, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Deborah Kaye Banks (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on July 26, 2017, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge. In accordance with the Court's Order Re: Procedures in Social Security Appeal, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Jt. Stip.”) on March 22, 2018, addressing their respective positions. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument and as such, this matter now is ready for decision.



         On November 22, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning July 11, 2012. (Administrative Record [“AR”] 16, 169-71.) After her application was denied initially (AR 108), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on December 7, 2015. (AR 49, 117-18.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), as did June C. Hagen, a vocational expert, and Dr. Thomas J. Maxwell, a medical expert. (AR 49-60.)

         On January 15, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 13-24.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 11, 2012, the alleged onset date. (AR 18.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; pancreatitis; diabetes mellitus; hypertension; osteoarthritis of the right shoulder and knees; obesity; and gastroesophageal reflux disease. (AR 19.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. (AR 20.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, with the following limitations:

no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no exposure to unprotected heights or hazardous machinery; no more than occasional postural maneuvers; no more than occasional pushing or pulling with the lower extremities; and no more than occasional overhead activities with the upper extremities.

(AR 21.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a gambling cashier as generally performed. (AR 24.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined in the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 9-12.) On June 2, 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), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision 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). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Id. 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 one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”). However, a court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Lastly, even when the ALJ commits legal error, the Court upholds the decision where that error is harmless. Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115. An error is harmless if it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, ” or if “the agency's path may reasonably be discerned, even if the agency explains its decision with less than ideal clarity.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (citation omitted).



         The parties present two disputed ...

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