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Michelle G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. California

July 23, 2019

MICHELLE G., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION REGARDING CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NOS. 16, 17]

          Honorable Michael S. Berg United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Report and Recommendation is submitted to the Honorable Dana M. Sabraw, United States District Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Civil Local Rule 72.1(c) of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. On June 18, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of a decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Compl., ECF No. 1.)

         Now pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, 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 February 19, 2016, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning April 8, 2015. (Certified Admin. R., 230-31, ECF No. 13-5 (“AR”).) After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, (id. at 152-56, 159-63), Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), (id. at 169-70). An administrative hearing was held on September 7, 2017. (Id. at 35-78.)[1] Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with counsel, and testimony was taken from her and a vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.)

         As reflected in his December 7, 2017 hearing decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 8, 2015 through the date of the decision. (Id. at 15-30.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on April 20, 2018, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id. at 1-6.) This timely civil action followed.

         II. SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ followed the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 8, 2015, the alleged onset date. (AR at 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, a bilateral elbow impairment, depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments. (Id. at 24.)

         Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to do the following:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant is limited to occasional bilateral gross handling, fine manipulation, and reaching, and the claimant is further limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with standard industry work breaks every two hours.

(Id. at 26.)

         At step four, the ALJ adduced and accepted the VE's testimony that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's vocational profile and RFC would be unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 29, 43-46.) The ALJ then proceeded to step five of the sequential evaluation process. Based on the VE's testimony that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's vocational profile and RFC could perform the requirements of occupations that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as furniture rental consultant, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 30.)

         III. DISPUTED ISSUES

         As reflected in Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff is raising the following issues as the grounds for reversal and remand:

1. Whether the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical evidence in assessing Plaintiff's RFC, and specifically the opinions of Plaintiff's consultative examiners, Dr. Laja Ibraheem and Dr. H. Douglas Engelhorn (Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. 3-9, ECF No. 16-1 (“Pl.'s Mot.”)); and
2. Whether the ALJ failed to resolve an apparent conflict between the VE's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) (id. at 9-10).

         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) (West 2018). 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 and contains no legal error. Id.; Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012).

         “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). This includes deferring to the ALJ's credibility determinations and resolutions of evidentiary conflicts. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 509 (9th Cir. 2001). Even if the reviewing court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions, the court must set aside the decision if the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and reaching his or her decision. See Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ Failed to Properly Evaluate Opinions of Consultative Examiners

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not provide specific and legitimate reasons for discounting the opinions of two consultative examiners. (See Pl.'s Mot. at 3-9; Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. and Reply 2-3, ECF No. 19-1 (“Pl.'s Reply”).) Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly concluded that both consultative examiners' opinions were internally inconsistent. (Pl.'s Mot. at 6-8.) Plaintiff further contends that the ALJ erred by assigning little weight to the opinion of Dr. Ibraheem, due to Dr. Ibraheem's partial reliance on Plaintiff's self-reported symptoms. (Id. at 6-7.)

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence. (Def.'s Cross-Mot. Summ. J. 4-8, ECF No. 17-1 (“Def.'s Mot.”).) The Commissioner contends that the ALJ's finding that both consultative examiners' opinions were internally inconsistent justified discounting those opinions. (Id. at 5, 7.) The Commissioner further asserts that the ALJ's finding that Dr. Ibraheem relied on Plaintiff's reported symptoms rather than medical records justified the ALJ's assigning little weight to Dr. Ibraheem's opinion. (Id. at 5.)

         1. Applicable law

         Three types of physicians may offer opinions in Social Security cases: “(1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant (nonexamining physicians).” Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). A treating physician's opinion is generally given more weight than that of a physician who did not treat the claimant. See id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). An examining physician's opinion is “entitled to greater ...


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