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Kamal L. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California, Western Division

July 3, 2019

ROBERT KAMAL L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [2] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN D. EARLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Robert Kamal L. filed a Complaint on September 11, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). On June 6, 2019, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“Jt. Stip.”), addressing their respective positions. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument and as such, this matter now is ready for decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 5, 2015, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability beginning June 30, 2013. Administrative Record (“AR”) 77, 156. After his application was denied (AR 77-92), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on June 8, 2017. AR 47, 115. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), as did Heidi Paul, a vocational expert. AR 47-76.

         On October 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 15-25. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2013, the alleged onset date. AR 20. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and arthritis of the lumbar spine; diabetes; sleep apnea; mild diabetic peripheral neuropathy; joint dysfunction; and obesity. Id. The ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. AR 21. The ALJ also found Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with the following limitations: “no more than frequently performing postural activities; and no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.” AR 22. The ALJ determined Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a caregiver and security guard. AR 25. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined in the Social Security Act. Id.

         Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council for review of the ALJ's decision (AR 154), which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-4. This action followed.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Standard of Review

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may review a decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (as amended). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. 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 that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21; see also Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012) (“Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”). However, a 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 v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Lastly, even when the ALJ commits legal error, the Court upholds the decision where that error is harmless. Molina, 674 F.3d at 1115. An error is harmless if it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, ” or if “the agency's path may reasonably be discerned, even if the agency explains its decision with less than ideal clarity.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (citation omitted).

         B. Standard for Determining Disability Benefits

         When the claimant's case has proceeded to consideration by an ALJ, the ALJ conducts a five-step sequential evaluation to determine at each step if the claimant is or is not disabled. See Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110.

         First, the ALJ considers whether the claimant currently works at a job that meets the criteria for “substantial gainful activity.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110. If not, the ALJ proceeds to a second step to determine whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than twelve months. Id. If so, the ALJ proceeds to a third step to determine whether the claimant's impairments render the claimant disabled because they “meet or equal” any of the “listed impairments” set forth in the Social Security Regulations at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See Rounds v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1001 (9th Cir. 2015) (as amended). If the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a “listed impairment, ” before proceeding to the fourth step the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC, that is, what the claimant can do on a sustained basis despite the limitations from his impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Social Security Ruling 96-8p.

         After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step and determines whether the claimant has the RFC to perform his past relevant work, either as he “actually” performed it when he worked in the past, or as that same job is “generally” performed in the national economy. See Stacy v. Colvin, 825 F.3d 563, 569 (9th Cir. 2016). If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to a fifth and final step to determine whether there is any other work, in light of the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, that the claimant can perform and that exists in “significant numbers” in either the national or regional economies. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100-01 (9th Cir. 1999); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c). If the claimant can do other work, he is not disabled; but if the claimant cannot do other work and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is disabled. See id. at 1099.

         The claimant generally bears the burden at each of steps one through four to show he is disabled, or he meets the requirements to proceed to the next step; and the claimant bears the ultimate burden to show he is disabled. See, e.g., Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110; Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995). However, at Step Five, the ALJ has a limited burden of production to identify representative jobs that the claimant can perform and that exist in “significant” numbers in the economy. See Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The parties present two disputed issues (Jt. Stip. at 2):

Issue No. 1: Whether the ALJ properly followed the regulations in weighing the opinion evidence in this matter; and
Issue No. 2: Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's subjective complaints as required by the Agency's ...

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