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Binsacca v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 15, 2019

ANTHONY BINSACCA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 15, 16

          JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Anthony Binsacca seeks social security benefits for physical and mental impairments including chronic pain, neuropathy, migraines, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), insomnia, cervical radiculopathy, sciatica, lumbago, and depression. (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 214.) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff filed this lawsuit for judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his benefits claim. (Dkt. No. 1.)[1] Before the Court are Plaintiff's and Defendant's motions for summary judgment.[2] (Dkt. Nos. 15 & 16.) Because the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ's”) determination that Plaintiff's diagnosed fibromyalgia is not a medically determinable impairment constitutes reversible error, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion, DENIES Defendant's cross motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A claimant is considered “disabled” under the Social Security Act if he meets two requirements. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). First, the claimant must demonstrate “an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, the impairment or impairments must be severe enough that the claimant is unable to do his previous work and cannot, based on his age, education, and work experience “engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required to employ a five-step sequential analysis, examining: “(1) whether the claimant is ‘doing substantial gainful activity'; (2) whether the claimant has a ‘severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment' or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months; (3) whether the impairment ‘meets or equals' one of the listings in the regulations; (4) whether, given the claimant's ‘residual functional capacity,' the claimant can still do his or her ‘past relevant work'; and (5) whether the claimant ‘can make an adjustment to other work.'” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)).

         An ALJ's “decision to deny benefits will only be disturbed if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). As explained by the Ninth Circuit, “[s]ubstantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that must be upheld.” Id. In other words, if the record “can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Jamerson v. Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1067 (9th Cir. 1997) (“[T]he key question is not whether there is substantial evidence that could support a finding of disability, but whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's actual finding that claimant is not disabled.”). However, “a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply proper legal standards.” Id. A court “must consider the entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 675 (9th Cir. 2017).

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In March 2013, Plaintiff filed for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416, 423, (AR 189-95). Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on April 19, 2011. (AR 214.) His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 124-28, 130-35.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 159.) On January 11, 2017, ALJ Arthur Zeidman held a hearing during which both Plaintiff and vocational expert (“VE”) Ann Wallace testified. (AR 33-78.)

         I. The ALJ's Findings

         On April 28, 2017, the ALJ issued a written determination denying Plaintiff's claims, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act based on the testimony and evidence and using Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. (AR 15-28.)

         At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 19, 2011, the alleged onset date, “through his date last insured of December 31, 2016.” (AR 17.) At step two, the ALJ determined that the medical evidence indicated that Plaintiff's “left shoulder impairment” and depression constitute “severe impairments.” (Id.) The ALJ characterized those impairments as “severe” because they “significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities.” (Id.) The ALJ concluded, however, that Plaintiff's “other medically determinable impairments including pancreatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraines” and “any other medically determinable impairments” were not severe because they did not represent, “either singly or in combination with everything else, more than a minimal limitation” on Plaintiff's ability “to perform basic work activities.” (AR 17-18.) Further, the ALJ concluded at step two that Plaintiff's alleged fibromyalgia was a “non-medically determinable impairment as directed by [Social Security Ruling (“SSR”)] 12-2p.” (AR 18.)

         At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id. (citing 20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).) In reaching that conclusion, the ALJ noted that “[n]o treating or examining physician has recorded findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical findings that are the same or equivalent to those of any listed impairment.” (AR 18.)

         At step four, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and concluded that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform “light work, ” but “was limited to no more than occasional public contact and performing simple, routine tasks.” (AR 20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce [Plaintiff's] alleged symptoms; however, [his] statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence explained in [the] decision.” (AR 23.) In making that determination, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's alleged physical limitations related to his “neck and spine impairments” were not consistent with “the objective imaging evidence and his nerve conduction studies.” (Id.) Further, the ALJ found that the medical evidence did not support Plaintiff's “allegations of difficulty ambulating” or his alleged mental limitations. (AR 23-25.)

         As for the medical opinion evidence, the ALJ afforded “great weight” to the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Dixit. (AR 24.) Dr. Dixit opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in his ability to “[m]aintain emotional stability” and interact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. (AR 411.) Dr. Dixit also found mild to moderate limitations in Plaintiff's ability to remember complex instructions and “[m]aintain adequate pace or persistence to perform complex tasks.” (Id.) Dr. Dixit further opined that Plaintiff had mild limitations in maintaining adequate concentration and performing required tasks. (Id.) The ALJ likewise afforded “great weight” to the opinions of the “state agency psychological consultants, ” whose findings were “generally consistent with the opinion of Dr. Dixit.” (AR 25.)

         The ALJ afforded “little weight” to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Dr. Carla Haimowitz. Dr. Haimowitz assessed Plaintiff as “truly disabled” due to “constant, intractable pain, ” depression, fatigue, impaired memory and concentration, and PTSD. (AR 25; see also AR 336, Ex. 2F at 1-6.) The ALJ discounted Dr. Haimowitz's findings regarding Plaintiff's physical impairments, noting that Dr. Haimowitz is “not a medical doctor, ” and “although [she] regularly saw [Plaintiff] for sessions, she was not familiar with his actual functional abilities.” (AR 25.) The ALJ next considered the opinion of examining physician Dr. Calvin Pon and afforded it “some weight, ” noting that the physical limitations found by Dr. Pon were “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence of record” including past “normal physical exams” and “objective imaging evidence.” (AR 25.) Likewise, the ALJ afforded “some weight” to the opinions of the “state agency medical consultants” because the opinions were inconsistent with Plaintiff's “ability to play guitar all day, ” past “normal physical exams, ” and objective imaging evidence. (AR 26.)

         The ALJ concluded the step-four analysis by finding that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work because “his limitation to simple, repetitive tasks precludes all of the claimant's past skilled work.” (AR 26-27.) At step five, the ALJ determined that “there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed” based on his “age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity” to perform “unskilled light work.” (AR 27-28.) In sum, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “was not under a ...


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