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Magana v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 2, 2018

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



         Plaintiff filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In accordance with the Court's case management order, the parties have filed memorandum briefs addressing the merits of the disputed issues.[1] On April 30, 2018, the parties filed supplemental briefs. This matter now is ready for decision.


         On July 24, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning February 28, 2011. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 303-318.) His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 185-204.)

         Plaintiff appeared with counsel at a hearing conducted before an ALJ on February 18, 2015. (AR 59.) During the hearing, the ALJ noted that at Plaintiff's last examination in November 2014, Plaintiff's left eye visual acuity was 20/40. (AR 67-68.) Plaintiff testified that his vision had deteriorated since the November 2014 examination, explaining that approximately three to four weeks prior to the hearing, he had experienced “blood” in his left eye. Plaintiff did not seek medical treatment because he lacked medical insurance. (AR 68-69.) Recognizing that the medical record was incomplete with respect to Plaintiff's left eye, the ALJ ordered a consultative ophthalmology examination to see “what's going on with his left eye.” (AR 70.) The ALJ then continued the hearing in order to obtain a consultative examination of Plaintiff's visual impairment. At the same time, the ALJ ordered a consultative examination by an internist. (AR 72.) After obtaining reports from a consultative ophthalmologist and a consultative internist, a second hearing was conducted on July 24, 2015, at which Plaintiff, a medical expert (“ME”) and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AR 76-103.)

         On September 2, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff suffered from the following medically severe impairments: diabetes mellitus with diabetic neuropathy; diabetic retinopathy with bilateral vitreous hemorrhage; status post vitrectomy of the right eye and laser treatment in both eyes; bilateral cataracts, hypertension; mild degenerative changes of the lumbosacral spine; and lumbago. (AR 39.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with some exertional limitations. (AR 42-43.) With respect to Plaintiff's visual impairment, the ALJ adopted the opinion of the ME and found that Plaintiff must avoid all exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights; was unable to operate moving vehicles; was unable to perform work involving frequent depth perception; and was limited to work that allows for monovision. (AR 43.) Based upon this RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (AR 47.) The ALJ then adopted the opinion of the VE who testified that an individual with the RFC assessed by the ALJ would be able to perform the occupations of Stuffer, Information Clerk, and Document Preparer. (AR 48.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any date prior to his decision. (AR 49.) On March 9, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-7.)


         Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's visual impairment and its effect on his ability to perform work existing in the national economy. (ECF No. 18 at 10.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. See Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla” but less than a preponderance. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court reviews the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. See Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010; Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008); Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Finally, even when an ALJ's decision contains error, it must be affirmed if the error was harmless. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099.


         I. The evidence relating to Plaintiff's visual impairment

         In his summary of the medical evidence relating to Plaintiff's visual impairment, the ALJ noted that in February 2013, Plaintiff's corrected vision was 20/50 in the right eye and 20/25 in the left eye. (AR 40, 440.) In May 2013, Plaintiff presented to the Whittier Hospital Medical Center emergency department with complaints of vision loss in his right eye. Plaintiff was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, central retinal artery occlusion, vitreous lifting and retinal pigment epithelial detachment. (AR 40, 454-455.) Records from Riverside Regional Medical Center showed that Plaintiff was diagnosed with proliferative diabetic retinopathy and vitreous hemorrhage of the right eye, and hypertensive retinopathy and diabetic macular edema in both eyes. (AR 40, 492-501.) In June 2013, Plaintiff's corrected vision was limited to light and movement in the right eye and 20/25 in the left eye. (AR 40, 500.) In May 2014, Plaintiff was diagnosed with bilateral cataracts. (AR 40, 627.) In August and November 2014, Plaintiff's corrected vision in his left eye was 20/40, and vision in his right eye remained limited to hand motion. (AR 40, 622, 624.)

         In April 2015, after the hearing was continued to allow additional evidence regarding possible deterioration of Plaintiff's left eye. Plaintiff underwent a consultative examination by board-certified ophthalmologist David Paikal, M.D. As the ALJ noted, “[b]y that time, [Plaintiff]'s best-corrected vision was hand motion on the right and 20/100 on the left. (AR 40, 643-645.) The visual fields study showed “mild construction on the left.” (AR 40, 645.) Dr. ...

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