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McLaughlin v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 15, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.




         On July 18, 2018, Plaintiff Barbara McLaughlin ("Plaintiff) filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). (Doc. 1.) The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs, which were submitted, without oral argument, to the Honorable Sheila K. Oberto, United States Magistrate Judge.[2]


         A. Procedural History

         On September 11, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed a claim for DIB payments, alleging she became disabled on August 15, 2014, due to nerve damage in her left arm and hand, diabetes, hepatitis C, arthritis, knee pain, depression, anxiety, memory loss, and difficulty learning and retaining information. (Administrative Record ("AR") 17, 19-20, 80, 185-86, 201, 204-205, 223, 229.) Plaintiff was born on July 2, 1963 and was 51 years old on the alleged disability onset date. (AR25, 80, 93, 185.) Plaintiff has a college degree and worked as a customer service representative at a wireless mobility company from April 2001 to August 2014. (AR 47-54, 65, 206-207.)

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs application for benefits initially on January 8, 2015, and again on reconsideration on April 27, 2015. (AR 105-108, 112-118.) Consequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 118-131.) On April 10, 2017, Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified before an ALJ as to her alleged disabling conditions. (AR 41-64.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. (AR 64-77.) Plaintiff testified that she has chronic pain in her left arm and arthritis in her lower back, knees, and neck. (AR 45-46, 56-57, 63.) Plaintiff also testified that she suffers from depression and anxiety, which causes problems with her memory. (AR 60-61.)

         On June 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled, as defined by the Act. (AR 17-26.) Plaintiff submitted a notice of her request to reopen the case pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.988 to the Appeals Council on August 10, 2017 (AR 184), and to the ALJ on August 15, 2017 (AR 12-13). With her request to reopen the case, Plaintiff submitted post-decision evidence. (AR 12-13.) The evidence consisted of a Psychological Evaluation report of Dr. J. Zhang, Psy.D, dated May 23, 2015. (AR 31-36.)

         On June 5, 2018, the Appeals Council denied the request for review (AR 1-6), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. The "Notice of Appeals Council Action" denying review sets forth the Appeals Council's finding that Dr.

         Zhang's report "does not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision" and indicates that the Council "did not consider and exhibit this evidence." (See AR 2.)

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ conducted the five-step disability analysis set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. (AR 19-26.) The ALJ decided that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of August 15, 2014 (step 1). (AR 19.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and obesity (step 2). (AR 19-21.) However, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("the Listings") (step 3). (AR 21.) The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC")[3] and applied the RFC assessment at steps four and five. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4) ("Before we go from step three to step four, we assess your residual functional capacity .... We use this residual functional capacity assessment at both step four and step five when we evaluate your claim at these steps.").

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC:

to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567(c) except she can lift and carry 25 pounds frequently and lift 50 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk six hours; sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently push and pull with the left upper extremity; and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and reach overhead with the bilateral extremities. She can frequently perform handling with the left upper extremity; frequently stoop, crouch, crawl, balance, kneel, and climb ramps and stairs. She can also perform work with no more than occasional exposure to a cold or damp environment.

(AR 21.) Although the ALJ recognized that Plaintiff s impairments "could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ]" she rejected Plaintiffs subjective testimony as "not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record." (AR 22.)

         On the basis of this RFC assessment, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a customer service representative (step four). (AR 24-25.) In making this determination, the ALJ posed a series of hypothetical questions to the VE based upon Plaintiffs RFC. (AR 24-25, 57-60.) In response, the VE testified ...

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