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Irene I. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

August 29, 2019

IRENE I., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND

          HONORABLE JACQUELINE CHOOLJIAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. SUMMARY

         On January 15, 2019, plaintiff Irene I. filed a Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of plaintiff's applications for benefits. The parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, respectively (“Plaintiff's Motion”) and (“Defendant's Motion”) (collectively “Motions”). The Court has taken the Motions under submission without oral argument. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; L.R. 7-15; January 17, 2019 Case Management Order ¶ 5.

         Based on the record as a whole and the applicable law, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED AND REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order of Remand.

         II. BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

         On June 25, 2015 and June 26, 2015, respectively, plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning on January 31, 2009[2] due to diabetes, dizziness, nausea, high cholesterol, hepatitis, thyroid disease, tumor on ovary, and high blood pressure. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 201-08, 228). Plaintiff subsequently alleged that depression and severe anxiety also limited her ability to work. (AR 240, 251, 273). The ALJ examined the medical record and heard testimony from plaintiff (who was represented by counsel) and a vocational expert. (AR 37-70).

         On February 8, 2018, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled through the date of the decision. (AR 15-30). Specifically, the ALJ found: (1) plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, an ovarian cyst, and obesity (AR 18); (2) plaintiff's impairments, considered individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment (AR 20); (3) plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform medium work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c)) with additional limitations[3] (AR 21); (4) plaintiff could perform past relevant work as an instructional aide and childcare monitor (AR 27-29); (5) in the alternative, even if plaintiff could perform only light work, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform, specifically, small product assembler, collator, and light packer (AR 29); and (6) plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of subjective symptoms were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record (AR 21-22).

         On November 20, 2018, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's application for review. (AR 1-6).

         III. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Administrative Evaluation of Disability Claims

         To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show that she is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)) (internal quotation marks omitted); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905. To be considered disabled, a claimant must have an impairment of such severity that she is incapable of performing work the claimant previously performed (“past relevant work”) as well as any other “work which exists in the national economy.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)).

         To assess whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required to use the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in Social Security regulations. See Stout v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration, 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006) (describing five-step sequential evaluation process) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920). The claimant has the burden of proof at steps one through four - i.e., determination of whether the claimant was engaging in substantial gainful activity (step 1), has a sufficiently severe impairment (step 2), has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the conditions listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listings”) (step 3), and retains the residual functional capacity to perform past relevant work (step 4). Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five - i.e., establishing that the claimant could perform other work in the national economy. Id.

         B. Federal Court Review of Social Security Disability Decisions

         A federal court may set aside a denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's “final decision” was “based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The standard of review in disability cases is “highly deferential.” Rounds v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Thus, an ALJ's decision must be upheld if the evidence could reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674-75 (citations omitted). Even when an ALJ's decision contains error, it must be affirmed if the error was harmless. See Treichler v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th Cir. 2014) (ALJ error harmless if (1) inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination; or (2) ALJ's path may reasonably be discerned despite the error) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674 (defining “substantial evidence” as “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance”) (citation and quotation marks omitted). When determining whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's finding, a 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[.]” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         Federal courts review only the reasoning the ALJ provided, and may not affirm the ALJ's decision “on a ground upon which [the ALJ] did not rely.” Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675 (citations omitted). Hence, while an ALJ's decision need not be drafted with “ideal clarity, ” it must, at a minimum, set forth the ALJ's reasoning “in a way that allows for meaningful review.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (citing Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099).

         A reviewing court may not conclude that an error was harmless based on independent findings gleaned from the administrative record. Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (citations omitted). When a reviewing court cannot confidently conclude that an error was harmless, a remand for additional investigation or explanation is generally ...


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