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McNeal v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 2, 2018

SONJA ELNORA MCNEAL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          SUZANNE H. SEGAL, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Sonja Elnora McNeal (“Plaintiff”) seeks review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Agency”) denying her applications for social security benefits. The parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 10-12). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this decision.

         II.

         THE FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and that is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). The impairment must render the claimant incapable of performing work previously performed or any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         To decide if a claimant is entitled to benefits, an ALJ conducts a five-step inquiry. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The steps are:

(1) Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
(2) Is the claimant's impairment severe? If not, the claimant is found not disabled. If so, proceed to step three.
(3) Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the specific impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is found disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
(4) Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
(5) Is the claimant able to do any other work? If not, the claimant is found disabled. If so, the claimant is found not disabled.

Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99; see also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(g)(1), 416.920(b)-(g)(1).

         The claimant has the burden of proof at steps one through four and the Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54. Additionally, the ALJ has an affirmative duty to assist the claimant in developing the record at every step of the inquiry. Id. at 954. If, at step four, the claimant meets his or her burden of establishing an inability to perform past work, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform some other work that exists in “significant numbers” in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098, 1100; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1), 416.920(g)(1). The Commissioner may do so by the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines appearing in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2 (commonly known as “the grids”). Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001). When a claimant has both exertional (strength-related) and non-exertional limitations, the Grids are inapplicable and the ALJ must take the testimony of a VE. Moore v. Apfel, 216 F.3d 864, 869 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1340 (9th Cir. 1988)).

         III.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ employed the five-step sequential evaluation process in evaluating Plaintiff's case. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2010, the alleged onset date. (AR 13). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's disorder of the bilateral knees, right worse than left; disorder of the cervical spine with left-sided radiculopathy and pain in the left shoulder; high blood pressure; and an anxiety disorder are severe impairments. (AR 13). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listings enumerated in the regulations. (AR 13-16).

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's RFC and concluded that she can perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), [1] except:

[Plaintiff] is limited to sitting for four (4) hours total in a normal 8-hour workday with the ability to stand and stretch, not to exceed ten percent (10%) of the workday. She is capable of occasional use of foot pedals with bilateral lower extremities (BLE). In addition, she can perform occasional overhead reaching with the bilateral upper extremities (BUE), but she has no limitation with working at should [sic] level with BUE. However, she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and must avoid hazardous work environments, unprotected heights, operating fast or dangerous machinery, and driving commercial vehicles. Finally, she retains the capacity to perform non-complex routine tasks because of symptoms from anxiety related to stress and side effects of medications.

(AR 16). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 22). Based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined at step five that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including small products assembler, hand packer, and towel roller. (AR 23-24). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act from December 1, 2010, through the date of the decision. (AR 24).

         IV.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. “[The] court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Aukland v. Massanari,257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097); see ...


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