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Orosco v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 10, 2019

RALPH M. OROSCO, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that this matter be remanded for further administrative action consistent with this Opinion.


         On April 2, 2018, Ralph M. Orosco (“Plaintiff”), represented by counsel, filed a Complaint seeking review of the denial of his application for supplemental social security benefits. (Dkt. No. 1). The parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. (Dkt. Nos. 11, 12). On August 27, 2018, Defendant filed an Answer along with the Administrative Record (“AR”). (Dkt. Nos. 15-16). On February 26, 2019, the parties filed a Joint Submission (“Joint Stip.”), setting forth their respective positions regarding Plaintiff's sole claim. (Dkt. No. 26).


         On March 21, 2014, Plaintiff, formerly employed as a landscape laborer (see AR 51), filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (See AR 185-190). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration. (See AR 111-124). On October 28, 2016, Administrative Law Judge Norman L. Bennett, (“ALJ”), held a hearing at which Plaintiff, represented by counsel, and Bernard Preston, a vocational expert, testified. (See AR 45-66).

         On December 7, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's SSI application. (See AR 23-44). Applying the five-step sequential process, the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 21, 2014, the application filing date. (See AR 29). At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, degenerative joint disease of the right knee, hepatitis C, hypertension, history of stroke with residual right arm and leg weakness, and bipolar disorder were severe impairments. (See AR 29-30).[2] At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of any of the Listings enumerated in the regulations. (See AR 30-32).[3]

         The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] (see AR 32-38) and concluded that he can perform light work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.967(b), [5] with the following limitations: lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking up to six hours out of an eight-hour day; sitting up to six hours out of an eight-hour day; frequent postural activities except occasional kneeling; simple, repetitive tasks; and occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public. (See AR 32). At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (See AR 38). At step five, the ALJ determined, based on Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience that Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including cleaner, garment sorter, and inspector. (See AR 38-39). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act since March 21, 2014, the SSI application filing date. (See AR 39).

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 18, 2018. (See AR 1-6). Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision, which stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).


         This Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if: (1) the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Commissioner used proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C § 405(g); see Carmickle v. Comm'r, 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). “Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998)(citing Jamerson v. Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997)). It is relevant evidence “which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hoopai, supra; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, “a court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001)(citation omitted); see Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(inferences “reasonably drawn from the record” can constitute substantial evidence).

         This Court “may not affirm [the Commissioner's] decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of support evidence, but must also consider evidence that detracts from [the Commissioner's] conclusion.” Ray v. Bowen, 813 F.2d 914, 915 (9th Cir. 1987)(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court cannot disturb findings supported by substantial evidence, even though there may exist other evidence supporting Plaintiff's claim. See Torske v. Richardson, 484 F.2d 59, 60 (9th Cir. 1973). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the [Commissioner's] conclusion, [a] court may not substitute its judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21 (citation omitted).


         Plaintiff's contends that the ALJ failed to provide specific, clear, and convincing reasons for discrediting his testimony. (See Joint Stip. at 4-13). Respondent contends that the ALJ did provide specific, clear, and convincing reasons for discrediting Plaintiff's testimony. (See Joint. Stip. at 13-17).

         After consideration of the parties' arguments and the record as a whole, the Court finds that Plaintiff's claim of error warrants remand for further consideration.

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Assess Plaintiff's Testimony.

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         In a Function Report dated April 24, 2014 (completed by the girlfriend of Plaintiff, who is illiterate [see AR 55]), Plaintiff detailed his abilities and limitations. (See AR 211-17). Plaintiff lived in a home with his family, where his sister primarily took care of him. (AR 211). With respect to employment, Plaintiff attempted to “do labor work” prior to the onset of his symptoms, but he “was not able to keep a job.” (AR 212).

         Plaintiff had difficulty sleeping, which was affected by his anxiety and insomnia. (AR 212). His sister fed him in the morning and helped prepare meals for him, as Plaintiff did not know how to cook. (See AR 211, 213). His sister additionally performed various household chores and gave his medications to him. (AR 213). Plaintiff's inability to aid in these activities was the result of his back pain and a recent stroke. (AR 214). Plaintiff needed aid in ironing, laundry, cleaning, and going to doctor's appointments. (AR 213). Plaintiff needed someone to accompany him when he did leave the house and had difficulties with social activities because he spent “most of his life . . . in prison, ”. (215-16). Plaintiff did not like being around others and preferred to only be around his mother and sister. (AR 216). Plaintiff was only able to go out “about every three days, ” but also did not “come home for days” at a time. (AR 214). When Plaintiff left the house, he rode in a car; he did not know how to drive. (AR 214). Plaintiff had the ability to shave, feed himself, and put on shoes, but needed help changing clothes, taking a bath, and reminders to brush his teeth. (AR 212-13). Plaintiff watched television approximately one hour a day. (AR 215). As for budgeting and finance-related issues, Plaintiff was unable to pay bills, count change, handle a savings account, and use a checkbook and money orders. (AR 214).

         Plaintiff had difficulty lifting, walking, stair-climbing, understanding, squatting, sitting, following instructions, kneeling, using hands, standing, talking, completing tasks, getting along with others, reaching, hearing, lifting ten pounds at a time, and had issues with memory and concentration. (AR 216). Plaintiff could only walk around the house since the stroke affected his ability to walk; he could go from the bedroom to the bathroom, and needed to rest five minutes before resuming walking. (AR 216). Plaintiff had difficulty following written or spoken instructions, and could pay attention for ten minutes. (AR 216). Plaintiff had difficulty getting along with authority figures, but he had never been fired because of an inability to get along with others. (AR 217). Plaintiff did not handle changes in routine or stress well. (AR 217). Plaintiff used “glasses all the time, ” a “cane sometimes, ” and a “wheelchair right now ever since [he] had a stroke.” (AR 217).

         At the hearing on October 28, 2016, Plaintiff testified to his symptoms and limitations. (See AR 49-60). Plaintiff is 52-years-old, five-foot seven-inches tall, weighing 167 pounds and has a seventh-grade education. (AR 50). The last time Plaintiff used any drugs or alcohol was some time in 2014. (AR 60). In September 2014, he performed landscaping work, including “sweeping” and “pick[ing] up papers and trash, ” wherein he lifted a “rake and a broom” sweeping into a “rubber trashcan.” (AR 51-52). However, he was unable to continue due to knee pain, arthritis, and a “disc in the lower back” causing pain. (AR 52). Plaintiff denied receiving any surgery for his knee and received only steroids under the kneecap for treatment. (AR 49). Plaintiff experiences issues with his general health, arthritis, and right elbow. (AR 59). “[B]ending or lifting” his right elbow creates pain and limits him to lifting a half gallon of water or milk. (AR 59). His doctor told him to “keep [his] pace” ...

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