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Truong v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 19, 2019

TRAI TRUONG, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION REGARDING CROSS MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGEMENT [ECF NOS. 14, 17]

          HONORABLE MICHAEL S. BERG, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This Report and Recommendation is submitted to the Honorable Michael M. Anello, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 72.1(c) of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. On July 20, 2018, Plaintiff Trai Truong filed a Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for disability insurance benefits. (ECF No. 1.)

         Now pending before the Court and ready for decision are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (See ECF Nos. 14 & 17.) The Court has also reviewed and considered Plaintiff's Reply (ECF No. 19) and Defendant's Sur-reply (ECF No. 20). The parties disagree about whether Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as determined by the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) was inconsistent with occupational requirements for the position of laser-beam-machine operator in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), such that the ALJ was required to resolve the conflict between the DOT and the vocational expert (“VE”) testimony that Plaintiff could perform the occupation prior to accepting the vocational expert's testimony. (See, e.g., ECF No. 19 at 2.) For the reasons set forth herein, the Court RECOMMENDS that plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED, that the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment be DENIED, and that Judgment be entered reversing the decision of the Commissioner and remanding this matter for further administrative proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On July 1, 2014, Plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and SSI, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2013. (Certified Administrative Record [“AR”] 15.) After his claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration (AR 111-15, 117-22), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ. (AR 123-24.) An administrative hearing was held on May 1, 2017 before ALJ Mark Greenberg. (AR 40-73.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with counsel, and testimony was taken from both Plaintiff and a VE. (AR 40-73.)

         As reflected in his July 26, 2017 hearing decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2013 through the date of the decision. (AR 25.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on May 24, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-6.) This timely civil action followed.

         II. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ determined based on Plaintiff's earnings that Plaintiff had disability insurance coverage through December 31, 2017. (AR 17.) The ALJ proceeded to use the five-step sequential evaluation process to guide his determination of whether Plaintiff was disabled. (AR 16-25.)

         At step one, he determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, June 1, 2013. (AR 18.)

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, epicondylitis, degenerative joint disease of the right elbow, radial tunnel syndrome, depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.” (Id.) Because he found that these impairments “more than minimally” affected Plaintiff's ability to perform basic work activities, the ALJ considered the impairments severe. (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments. (Id.)

         Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's RFC, or the most an individual can do despite his limitations (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a)):

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently and sitting, or standing or walking, up to 6 hours. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently reach, handle, and finger bilaterally, but only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. He should have no concentrated exposure to cold or vibration. He should have no exposure to unprotected heights. He can perform detailed non-complex instructions.

(AR 20.)

         The ALJ then proceeded to step four of the sequential process, the only step at-issue in this case. Here, with the help of testimony from the VE, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work (“PRW”) as a “Laser[-Beam-] Machine Operator (DOT[2] 815.682-010), light work in exertional level, and semi-skilled with an SVP of four.” (AR 24.) The ALJ specifically relied on the VE's representation that her testimony that Plaintiff could perform work as a laser-beam-machine operator was consistent with the DOT, stating that he did so “because of her credentials.” (AR 24-25.) Based on his step four determination, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 25.)

         III. SOLE ISSUE IN DISPUTE

         As reflected in Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, the sole disputed issue in this case is whether the ALJ committed legal error at step four of the sequential evaluation process. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by accepting the VE's testimony that an individual with Plaintiff's RFC, particularly the limitation to “detailed non-complex” work, could perform the job of laser-beam-machine operator. (ECF No. 14-1 at 9.) According to Plaintiff, several features of the DOT definition of laser-beam-machine operator conflict with the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had an RFC for “detailed non-complex instructions, ” and the ALJ was not permitted to rely on the VE's testimony without resolving the apparent conflict. (Id.) Plaintiff further argues that the “detailed non-complex instructions” part of the RFC precluded semi-skilled work, and under Social Security Ruling 00-4P, resolving this conflict would have been inconsistent with regulatory policy, and therefore not permitted. (Id. at 8-9.) Defendant contends that there is no apparent conflict between Plaintiff's RFC and the demands of Plaintiff's PRW as a laser-beam-machine operator, and accordingly the ALJ's step four finding was supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 17-1 at 3-6.)

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act allows unsuccessful applicants to seek judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of judicial review is limited, and the denial of benefits will not be disturbed if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record ...


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