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Steve S. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

September 12, 2019

STEVE S., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL,[1] Defendant.



         I. BACKGROUND

         In July 2014, Steve S. (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) alleging a disability onset date of September 30, 2013, when he was 32 years old. Administrative Record (“AR”) 146, 151. From 1999 to 2013, Plaintiff worked at a warehouse and loading dock. AR 199, 248, 461. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2008 and had implantable cardioverter-defibrillator surgery in 2011, but he continued working. AR 247, 430. He stopped working on September 13, 2013, because his employer's business closed. AR 182; see also AR 249 (reporting “no symptoms” to doctors in March 2013); AR 434 (stating in April 2013 that his right shoulder pain started “a few years ago”). Later in 2013, he pursued a workers' compensation claim asserting that he suffered an industrial injury in September 2012. AR 425, 429, 464. He claimed that his warehouse work involved continuously reaching above shoulder level, and he had injured his right shoulder through repetitive use. AR 429, 431, 464.

         On August 24, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). AR 36-64. On December 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's applications. AR 20-29. The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe, medically determinable impairments of “right shoulder strain/sprain and impingement syndrome with labral tear and paralabral cyst, idiopathic cardiomyopathy with a history of congestive heart failure and status post implantation of a cardioverter defibrillator device, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and obesity[.]” AR 22. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of sedentary work activity with restrictions against reaching above his shoulders, climbing, and working around unprotected heavy machinery or unprotected heights. AR 24.

         Based on this RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could work as an addresser (Dictionary of Occupation Titles [“DOT”] 209.587-010), ticket checker (DOT 219.587-010), and lens inserter (DOT 713.687-026). AR 28. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 29.


         A district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Comm'r of SSA, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing[, ]” the reviewing court “may not substitute its judgment” for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

         “A decision of the ALJ will not be reversed for errors that are harmless.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Generally, an error is harmless if it either “occurred during a procedure or step the ALJ was not required to perform” or if it “was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Stout v. Comm'r of SSA, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).


         Issue One: Whether the ALJ's determination of Plaintiff's RFC is supported by substantial evidence.

         Issue Two: Whether the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs on a sustained basis is supported by substantial evidence.

         (Dkt. 38, Joint Stipulation [“JS”] at 3.)


         A. ISSUE ONE: The RFC Determination.

         1. Using His Upper Extremities.

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ did not consider (1) a medical evaluation finding that he had diminished right hand grip strength and right shoulder weakness, and (2) chiropractic progress notes showing that his right upper extremity had a limited range of motion. (JS at 6, citing AR 313, 332-59.) According to Plaintiff, the ALJ should not merely have restricted him against using his arms above ...

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