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Vitela v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 4, 2018

FRANCISCA VITELA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Operations of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROZELLA A. OLIVER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Francisca Vitela (“Plaintiff”) challenges the Commissioner's denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         II. PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         On August 20, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for DIB alleging disability beginning November 8, 2008. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 138.) Her application was denied initially on February 25, 2011, and upon reconsideration on June 2, 2011. (AR 81, 87.) On June 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing, and a hearing was held on January 19, 2012. (AR 18, 95.) Represented by counsel, Plaintiff appeared and testified, along with an impartial vocational expert. (AR 20-57.) On March 28, 2012, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, pursuant to the Social Security Act, [1] from November 8, 2008 through June 30, 2011, the date last insured (“DLI”). (AR 75-76.) The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 7.)

         Plaintiff filed an action in the District Court on May 13, 2013. (See AR 626-27.) On March 7, 2014, the Court reversed and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. (AR 639-46.)

         Another hearing was held on July 28, 2015. (See AR 571.) The July 28 hearing was continued so that Plaintiff could undergo a consultative examination. A second supplemental hearing was held on February 9, 2016. (AR 613-25.) After the February 9 hearing, the ALJ propounded interrogatories on an impartial medical expert. (See AR 572, 1500-15, 1572-85.) A third hearing was held on June 9, 2016, after which the ALJ propounded interrogatories on another impartial medical expert. (See AR 572, 596-604, 902-09.)

         A final hearing was held on September 20, 2016, where the ALJ offered a stipulation from the vocational expert. (AR 605-610.) On September 28, 2016, the ALJ again found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, pursuant to the Social Security Act, from November 8, 2008 through the DLI. (AR 587-88.) Plaintiff filed this action on December 30, 2016. (Dkt. No. 1.)

         The ALJ followed a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 8, 2008, the alleged onset date (“AOD”), through June 30, 2011, her date last insured. (AR 576.) At step two, the ALJ found that through the DLI, Plaintiff has the following “conditions of ill-being” that, in combination, amounted to a severe impairment: cervical spine sprain or strain and disc protrusions with radiculopathy to the right upper extremity; thoracic spine sprain or strain; lumbar spine sprain or strain; mild right carpal tunnel syndrome; and depression. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (AR 577.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform light work . . . specifically as follows: the claimant can stand and walk up to six (6) hours, cumulatively, up to two hours at one time respectively, and sit up to six (6) hours, cumulatively, in an eight-hour work day. She can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently. She can occasionally climb, balance, bend, stoop and crawl, but never climb ropes, scaffolds, or ladders. She may frequently handle, finger, and reach above shoulder level. She may have occasional exposure to excessive heat or cold, vibrating surfaces, moving mechanical parts or dangerous heights. She may frequently perform complex technical work and can perform a full range of simple, repetitive work capable to perform work at least at level 6 reasoning. She may have more than frequent but less than constant contact with co-workers and the general public. She may perform work at stress level 7 on a scale of (1) one to (10) ten, one, by example, the work of a night dishwasher and ten being the work of an air traffic controller, as the vocational expert may [be] familiar with these occupations as they are generally performed in the national economy.

(AR 579.)

         At step four, based on Plaintiff's RFC and the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as an electrocardiograph technician, and therefore the ALJ did not proceed to step five. (AR 587.) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from the AOD through the DLI. (AR 587.)

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. A court must affirm an ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence, and if the proper legal standards were applied. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). “‘Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is 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) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). An ALJ can satisfy the substantial evidence requirement “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted).

         “[T]he Commissioner's decision cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Rather, a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the Secretary's conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “‘Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, ' the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)); see Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (“If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion, we may not substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ.”). The Court may 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.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff raises the following issues for review: (1) whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's mental RFC; and (2) whether the ALJ properly considered the opinion of Peter M. Schosheim, M.D. (Joint Stipulation (“JS”) 6.) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ properly considered the evidence in assessing Plaintiff's mental RFC and properly considered Dr. Schosheim's opinion. (See JS 17-19, 24-25.) For the reasons below, the Court agrees with Plaintiff on the issue of her mental RFC and remands on that ground.

         A. The Mental RFC Assessment Is Not Supported By Substantial Evidence

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly assess the medical opinions, and thus the mental RFC is not supported by substantial evidence. (See JS 6-17.) The Commissioner contends that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's mental RFC finding. (JS 17.)

         1. ...


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