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Robertson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 9, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.[1]Plaintiff's motion argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to properly credit a treating physician's opinion and erroneously rejected plaintiff's statements regarding her pain and functional limitations. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) is reversed, and the matter is remanded for the payment of benefits.


         On January 31, 2014, plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”) alleging disability beginning on July 31, 2013. (Transcript (“Tr.”) at 21, 196-202.) Plaintiff's alleged impairments included cervical spine injury; status post fusion surgery to C4 to C6 with pending surgery; chronic pain in the neck and shoulders; inability to sit for a prolonged period of time; difficulty with lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, and reaching; difficulty performing activities of daily living without pain; limited range of motion with pain in the neck; difficulty with sleep due to pain; incapability of rotating or tilting head without pain; and right shoulder pain status post-surgery. (Id. at 230.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially, (id. at 110-113), and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 117-121.)

         Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing and a hearing was held before an ALJ on July 12, 2016. (Id. at 41-79.) Plaintiff was represented by an attorney and testified at the administrative hearing. (Id. at 44-79.) In a decision issued on September 13, 2016, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 29.) The ALJ entered the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2019.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).[2]
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: status post posterior C5-6 fusion and instrumentation for pseudoarthrosis; chronic right shoulder dysfunction, status post surgery; and left shoulder overuse dysfunction (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) with the following exceptions: the claimant is not able to perform any lifting over ten pounds; is never able to perform overhead lifting; and must take a five-minute break every hour.
6. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as an office technician. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capacity (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 31, 2013 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f)).

(Id. at 23-29.)

         On November 21, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's September 13, 2016 decision. (Id. at 1-4.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on January 22, 2018. (ECF No. 2.)


         “The district court reviews the Commissioner's final decision for substantial evidence, and the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997).

         “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)). If, however, “the record considered as a whole can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, we must affirm.” McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1075 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A five-step evaluation process is used to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
Step two: Does the claimant have a “severe” impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding of not disabled is appropriate.
Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
Step four: Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. ...

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