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William D v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

July 16, 2019

WILLIAM D.,[1] Plaintiff
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[2] Defendant.




         Plaintiff William D. (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The parties filed consents to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge [Dkts. 10 and 14] and briefs [Dkt. 19 (“Pl. Br.”), Dkt. 24 (“Def. Br.”), Dkt. 27 (“Pl. Reply”)] addressing disputed issues in the case. The matter is now ready for decision. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that this matter should be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on December 20, 2016. [Dkt. 17, Administrative Record (“AR”), 201-203.] Plaintiff alleged he became disabled and unable to work beginning June 27, 2012, due to degenerative disc disease, dizziness, and headaches. [AR 206.] Plaintiff's application was denied initially, on reconsideration, and after a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mason Harrell, Jr. [AR 1-6, 15-28.]

         Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(b)-(g)(1). At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 20, 2016, the application date. [AR 17.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; a history of vertigo; a history of hypertension; headaches; a history of right femur fracture; a history of a transient ischemic attack; umbilical hernia; anxiety; and depression. [AR 17.] The ALJ determined at step three that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. [AR 18.]

         Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a restricted range of light work, including the ability to lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk 3-4 hours in an 8-hour workday, with a sit or stand option, sit 6 hours in an 8hour workday, he is limited to occasional pushing and/or pulling with the lower extremities, and he can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl. Plaintiff, however, is precluded from climbing stairs, ladders, ropes or scaffolds and he cannot have exposure to hazards, heights, vibrations, or extreme cold weather; he cannot interact with the public, he cannot perform complex or detailed tasks, but he can have occasional teamwork. He would be absent eighteen days per year. [AR 20.]

         Applying this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as given the limitations in the RFC findings. [AR 26.] However, at step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is able to perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the economy. [AR 27.] Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ's decision, which the Appeals Council denied, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 1-6.] This appeal followed.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine if: (1) the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the Commissioner used correct legal standards. See Carmickle v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Brewes v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal citation omitted). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 522-23 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted).

         The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. See Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). However, the 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). The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists if the error is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination, or if despite the legal error, the agency's path may reasonably be discerned.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to articulate legally sufficient reasons for rejecting his subjective symptom testimony. [Pl. Br. at 6-16.] Plaintiff requests reversal and remand for payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. [Pl. Br. at 15-16.] Defendant asserts that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed. [Def. Br. at 15.]

         Once a disability claimant produces evidence of an underlying physical or mental impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged and there is no affirmative evidence of malingering, the ALJ must offer “specific, clear and convincing reasons” to reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of his symptoms. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 678 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1284 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ must specifically identify the testimony that is being rejected and explain what evidence undermines that testimony. See Treichler v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1102-03 (9th Cir. 2014); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998); see also Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 679, n.5 (clarifying that ÔÇťassessments of an individual's testimony by an ALJ are designed to ...

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