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Lugo v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 27, 2019

ADOLFO LUGO, Plaintiff,



         Adolfo Lugo asserts he is entitled to benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge erred in her evaluation of the vocational evidence in the action. Because the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standards and ignored significant, probative evidence in the record, the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         On May 19, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Doc. 11-7 at 2) The Social Security Administration denied his applications at the initial level and upon reconsideration. (See generally Doc. 11-4; Doc. 11-3 at 24) Plaintiff requested a hearing and testified before an ALJ on February 2, 2017. (See Doc. 11-3 at 24, 41) At that time, the ALJ also obtained testimony from a vocational expert. (See Id. at 52) The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled and issued an order denying benefits on February 24, 2017. (Id. at 24-32)

         Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, asserting that “ALJ failed to acknowledge or consider [the] vocational analysis by Ms. Judith Najarian.” (Doc. 11-8 at 69) In addition, Plaintiff argued the ALJ erred in her classification of the past relevant work. (Id.) On April 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, finding “no reason under [the] rules to review the Administrative Law Judge's decision.” (Doc. 11-3 at 2-4) Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.


         District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, because “[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


         To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish he is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). If a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).


         To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920(a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id.

         A. Work History Report

         On July 10, 2014, Plaintiff completed a work history report regarding the jobs he held in the past fifteen years. (Doc. 11-8 at 13-22) He indicated he worked as a “letter sorter” for the census, a stocker for a grocery store and as a warehouse employee. (Id. at 13) Plaintiff reported that in the letter sorter position, he stood for eight hours a day and handled boxes with letters. (Id. at 15) He indicated the heaviest boxes he lifted weighed fifty pounds and he was required to “move the boxes to the machine.” (Id.) He lifted these boxes “2/3 of the workday.” (Id.)

         B. Vocational Expert's Report

         At the request of counsel, vocational expert Judith Najarian, provided a report to clarify Plaintiff's past work. (Doc. 11-8 at 63-65) Ms. Najarian noted that Plaintiff reported:

At his work station, he would go to a mail cart, already filled with mail, and push it about 10 feet to the mail sorting machine.
The wheeled mail cart that he pushed is described as 6 feet tall, 4 feet wide, with four shelves on it. On the shelves are plastic mail bins, similar to those used by the Post Office. There are 16 bins to a cart and each bin is filled by another worker with mail/correspondence. Depending on how full each bin is, Mr. Lugo estimated the bins weigh 30-50 pounds each.
The mail sorting machine is programmed by a supervisor to sort by desired location. If a jam occurs, he is to call a supervisor and not clear the jam himself.
His job was to individually take each bin off the cart in turn, place the bin on a 3-foot tall table by the sorting machine, and hand remove mail from the bin to feed into the machine. He would then return the empty bins to the cart, return the empty cart, and acquire another full cart to repeat this process throughout his shift.

(Id. at 63-64) According to Ms. Najarian, “There was no [Dictionary of Occupational Titles] code that accurately reflects this job as performed.” (Id. at 64) She observed the Dictionary of ...

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