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Figueroa v. Berryhill

United States District Court, C.D. California

May 10, 2018

LAURA PANGILINAN FIGUEROA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          KAREN L. STEVENSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Laura Pangilinan Figueroa (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint on January 7, 2017, seeking review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (Dkt. No. 1.) The parties have consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 13-15.) On December 27, 2017, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation. (Dkt. No. 32 (“Joint Stip.”).) Plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 20.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Id.) The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

         SUMMARY OF PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE AND JUDICIAL PROCEEDINGS

         On October 22, 2009, Plaintiff, who was born on September 9, 1954, filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 59-62, 87.) Plaintiff alleged disability commencing on October 1, 2009 due to a left arm nerve injury, numbness in her legs, back pain, and neck pain. (AR 35, 59.) Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2009. (AR 19.) After the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially (AR 35-38) and on reconsideration (AR 40-44), Plaintiff requested a hearing (AR 45).

         At a hearing held on February 23, 2012, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) heard testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert. (AR 268-305.) On March 2, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and DIB. (AR 17-29.) On March 2, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 5-8.)

         On May 1, 2013, Plaintiff filed an action in the district court appealing the Commissioner's final decision. See Case No. ED CV 13-8140-CW. On March 5, 2014, the previously-assigned Magistrate Judge reversed the Commissioner's decision and remanded the matter for further administrative proceedings. See id., Dkt. No. 20-21. On June 14, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's prior decision and directed further administrative proceedings consistent with the district court's order. (AR 370.)

         At a hearing held on April 15, 2016, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel, the ALJ heard testimony from a medical expert and a vocational expert. (AR 758-800.) On July 7, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's application for a period of disability and DIB. (AR 316-26.) On November 15, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 306-09.)

         SUMMARY OF LATEST ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         The ALJ made the following findings in the latest decision pursuant to the five-step sequential evaluation process. Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her October 1, 2009 alleged onset date to her date last insured of December 31, 2009. (AR 318.) Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left shoulder degenerative joint disease, mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, lumbar spine strain, bilateral knee pain, and rule out lateral meniscus tear in the left knee. (Id.) Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments. (AR 319.) Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c). (AR 319.)[1] Based on this RFC, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a sewing machine operator, home health aide, and child monitor. (AR 324-25.) Thus, Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 325.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). “Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, we must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).

         Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for the Commissioner's, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is “‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, ' or if despite ...


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