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Skinner v. Berryhill

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

April 2, 2018

AMY SKINNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL L. ABRAMS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff filed this action on May 19, 2017, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). The parties filed Consents to proceed before a Magistrate Judge on July 21, 2017, and January 16, 2018. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (alternatively “JS”) on January 19, 2018, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on April 9, 1970. [Administrative Record (“AR”) at 28, 164.] She has past relevant work experience as an apartment manager and an officer manager. [AR at 28, 58.]

         Plaintiff previously applied for a period of disability and DIB, which was denied on January 3, 2012. [AR at 19.] The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in the decision at issue herein, determined that “based on a lack of new or material evidence and a lack of good cause, ” plaintiff's January 3, 2012, denial of benefits was “not being reopened and revised.” [Id.] Accordingly, he found the previous determination of nondisability was final and binding through January 3, 2012, pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata. [Id.] On August 29, 2012, plaintiff filed a new application for a period of disability and DIB, alleging that she has been unable to work since June 27, 2011. [AR at 19, 164-65.] After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ. [AR at 19, 126-27.] A hearing was held on September 22, 2015, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [AR at 35-60.] A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. [AR at 58-59.] On November 12, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from June 27, 2011, the alleged onset date, through November 12, 2015, the date of the decision. [AR at 19-29.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [AR at 14-15.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 13, 2017 [AR at 1-5], the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Sam v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citations omitted). This action followed.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means 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.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted) (emphasis added). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, the Court “must consider the entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Court will “review only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943) (“The grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.”).

         IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         Persons are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Garcia v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 930 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).

         A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999)). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Lounsburry, 468 F.3d at 1114. If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”) set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient “residual functional capacity” to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because there is other work in “significant numbers” in the national or regional economy the claimant can do, either (1) by the testimony of a VE, or (2) by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2. Lounsburry, 468 F.3d at 1114. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 721, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 3, 2012, the date of the last denial determination.[1] [AR at 21.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; obesity; fibromyalgia, with knee pain; depression; and anxiety. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments in the Listing. [AR at 24.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), [3] as follows:

[She has] the capacity to lift and carry 10 pounds frequently; sit 6 hours in 8 hours, stand and walk 2 hours in an 8 hour day; no more than occasional bending and stooping; no work around hazards; and no greater than simple routine work with no more than occasional contact with the public and coworkers.

[AR at 26.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as an apartment manager and as an office manager. [AR at 28, 58.] At step five, based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, including work as a “document preparer” (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) No. 249.587-018), and “addresser” (DOT No. 209.587-010). [AR at 28-29, 58.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of June 27, 2011, through November 12, 2015, the date of the decision. [AR at 29.] / /

         V. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) discounted plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; (2) considered the medical opinion evidence; and (3) found at step five that plaintiff could perform the occupations of “document preparer” and “addresser.” [JS at 3.] As set ...


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