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Burt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 9, 2018

LORI BURT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER AFFIRMING COMMISSIONER

          JEAN ROSENBLUTH U.S. Magistrate Judge

         I. PROCEEDINGS

         Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation, filed December 5, 2017, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1960. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 44, 54, 199.) She completed high school (AR 204) and worked as a sales manager in a consignment store and an in-home caretaker (AR 27-30, 37, 204, 228, 248).

         On November 20, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since October 15, 2013, because of fibromyalgia, nerve damage, sciatica, “spinal issues, ” degenerative joint disease, vascular veins, shoulder pain, lower-back and leg pain and swelling, and “[f]oot problems.” (AR 44-45, 54-55, 159-61, 165-74, 203.) After her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration (see AR 64-65, 74-81), she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (AR 82-83). A hearing was held on August 7, 2015, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational expert. (See AR 23-43, 157.) In a written decision issued September 1, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 10-22.) Plaintiff sought Appeals Council review (AR 5), which was denied on March 6, 2017 (AR 1-4). This action followed.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. See id.; Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, ” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for the Commissioner's. Id. at 720-21.

         IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         People 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 has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

         A. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

         The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process to assess whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). 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 must be denied. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         If the claimant is not 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, the claimant is not disabled and her claim must be denied. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).

         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 set forth at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).

         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 (“RFC”)[1] to perform her past work; if so, she is not disabled and the claim must be denied. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; 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 October 15, 2013, the alleged onset date. (AR 12.) At step two, he concluded that Plaintiff had severe impairments of “lumbar degenerative disc disease, spondylosis and varicose veins.” (AR 12-13.) At step three, he determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listing. (AR 13.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work:

[She] can lift and/or carry no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and sit, stand and/or walk no more than six hours out of eight[, ] [but] [p]ushing and/or pulling with either the upper or lower extremities is unlimited other than for the weight limitations described[;] [s]he can no more than occasionally climb ramps or stairs but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds[;] and she can no more than occasionally bend, stoop or kneel but is precluded from work requiring crawling.

(AR 13-17.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an “owner/manager of a thrift store.” (AR 17.) Thus, he found Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 17-18.)

         V. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of internist David L. Blinn, a treating physician. (J. Stip. at 3-7.) As discussed below, the ALJ properly evaluated the medical-opinion evidence. Accordingly, remand is not warranted.

         A. Ap ...


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