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Christine G. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division

August 27, 2019

CHRISTINE G., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL L. ABRAMS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I.

         PROCEEDINGS

         Christine G.[1] (“plaintiff”) filed this action on December 27, 2018, seeking review of the Commissioner's[2] denial of her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before a Magistrate Judge on January 15, 2019, and January 30, 2019. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (alternatively “JS”) on August 7, 2019, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issue in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

         II.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1964. [Administrative Record (“AR”) at 201.] She has past relevant work experience as a loan processor. [Id. at 25, 62.]

         On April 29, 2015, plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB, and an application for SSI payments, alleging that she has been unable to work since September 1, 2006. [Id. at 15, see 199, 201-09.] After her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [Id. at 140-41.] A hearing was held on January 18, 2018, at which time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and testified on her own behalf. [Id. at 31-65.] A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. [Id. at 61-63.] On April 3, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability from September 1, 2006, the alleged onset date, through April 3, 2018, the date of the decision. [Id. at 15-26.] Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [Id. at 196.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on October 26, 2018 [id. at 1-5], the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See S am v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 808, 810 (9th Cir. 2008) (per c uriam) (citations omitted). This action followed.

         III.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means 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.” Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, the 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.” Id. (quoting Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Court will “review only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not r e l y . ” I d . (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see a l s o SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943) (“The grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.”).

         IV.

         THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

         Persons are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Garcia v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 930 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).

         A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999)). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Lounsburry, 468 F.3d at 1114. If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments (“Listing”) set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient “residual functional capacity” to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because there is other work existing in “significant numbers” in the national or regional economy the claimant can do, either (1) by the testimony of a VE, or (2) by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2. Lounsburry, 468 F.3d at 1114. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 721, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

         B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2006, the alleged onset date.[3] [AR at 18.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of obesity; right ankle tendinitis; right knee status post total knee replacement; lumbar spine degenerative disc disease; facet arthropathy and radiculopathy; cervical spine degenerative disc disease and radiculopathy; migraine headaches; and chronic pain. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments in the Listing. [Id. at 20.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[4] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), [5] as follows:

[She] is never to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she may occasionally climb ramps or stairs; she may frequently balance; and she may occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.

[Id.] At step four, based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a loan processor. [Id. at 25.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date of September 1, 2006, through April 3, 2018, the date of the decision. [Id. at 26.]

         V.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when she failed to articulate specific, clear and convincing reasons for rejecting plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [JS at 4.] As set forth below, the Court agrees with plaintiff and remands for further proceedings.

         A. SUBJECTIVE SYMPTOM TESTIMONY

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to articulate legally sufficient reasons for rejecting plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. [Id.]

         The ALJ summarized plaintiff's testimony as follows:

[She] testified she originally injured her right knee and ankle in 2003. She alleged since then she had multiple surgeries on her right knee with hardware inserted in her shin and anticipated additional surgical procedures. She stated she underwent total knee replacement in 2011. [She] asserted she had used a walker and a cane to assist with ambulation and most recently used a cane about two days prior to the hearing. She maintained she continued to have limited motion of the right knee and could not squat. [She] estimated she could not walk for more than 20 minutes, could not lift more than 5 pounds, could not sit for more than 15 minutes at a time, and could not stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. [She] also complained of pain in her low back and neck and contended she essentially experienced daily pain from her neck to her toes. However, she maintained she experienced the most pain in her low back and right knee, which was constant. [She] testified in a typical day she had to lie down about 80% of the day.

[AR at 21.]

         The ALJ discounted plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony as follows:

Despite her impairments, [she] has engaged in a somewhat normal level of daily activity ...

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