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Stuck v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 7, 2018

LESTER STUCK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          ALEXANDER F. MacKINNON, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits. In accordance with the Court's case management order, the parties have filed memorandum briefs addressing the merits of the disputed issues. This matter is now ready for decision.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 23, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits alleging disability since September 13, 2013. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 89-92, 95-100.) A hearing took place on February 1, 2016 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) at which Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) were present. (AR 29-59.)[1]

         In a decision dated March 11, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “hands, wrists, shoulders, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and adjustment disorder.” (AR 16.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that Plaintiff could perform postural activities occasionally; could occasionally walk on uneven terrain; could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could not be around heights or hazards; could frequently use the hands; could occasionally perform overhead reaching with his non-dominant left upper extremity; and was limited to simple, repetitive tasks. (AR 18.) Given the foregoing RFC, Plaintiff was incapable of performing his past relevant work as a hospital cleaner or security guard. (AR 22.) Based upon the testimony of the VE, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's RFC did not preclude him from performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 23.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from September 13, 2013 to the date of the decision.

         The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR 1-6), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         DISPUTED ISSUES

         1. Whether the ALJ erroneously failed to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”).

         2. Whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the consultative examiner's findings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. This Court must review the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035. Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         DISCUSSION

         1. Any error in failing to resolve a conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT was harmless.

         At step five of the sequential evaluation, the Commissioner bears the burden of establishing that there are available jobs that the claimant can perform notwithstanding his or her functional limitations. See Gutierrez v. Colvin,844 F.3d 804, 806 (9th Cir. 2016). “To aid in making this determination, the ALJ may rely on an impartial vocational expert to provide testimony about jobs the applicant can perform despite his or her limitations.” Gutierrez, 844 F.3d at 806-807 (citing Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). If a VE's “opinion that the applicant is able to work conflicts with, or seems to conflict with, the requirements listed in the Dictionary, then the ALJ must ask the expert ...


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