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Bly v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, N.D. California

September 16, 2019

CARL ROBERT BLY, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT RE: DKT. NOS. 23, 31

          JACQUELINE SCOTT CORLEY United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Carl Robert Bly seeks social security benefits for a combination of mental and physical impairments, including depression, anxiety, somatic symptom disorder, schizoid personality disorder, gastritis/colitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, status post left metacarpal fracture, hypertension, mild bilateral hearing loss, and obesity. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 27, 351, 921.) Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff filed this lawsuit for judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his benefits claim. Now before the Court are Plaintiff's and Defendant's Motions for Summary Judgment.[1] (Dkt. Nos. 23, 31.) Because the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) weighing of the medical evidence and adverse credibility finding are not supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ erred in failing to consider Plaintiff's personality disorder and whether he met or equaled a listing at Step Three, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion, DENIES Defendant's cross-motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A claimant is considered “disabled” under the Social Security Act if he meets two requirements. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). First, the claimant must demonstrate “an inability 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, the impairment or impairments must be severe enough that he is unable to do his previous work and cannot, based on his age, education, and work experience “engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required to employ a five-step sequential analysis, examining: “(1) whether the claimant is ‘doing substantial gainful activity'; (2) whether the claimant has a ‘severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment' or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months; (3) whether the impairment ‘meets or equals' one of the listings in the regulations; (4) whether, given the claimant's ‘residual functional capacity,' the claimant can still do his or her ‘past relevant work'; and (5) whether the claimant ‘can make an adjustment to other work.'” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)).

         An ALJ's “decision to deny benefits will only be disturbed if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error.” Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). As explained by the Ninth Circuit, “[s]ubstantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion that must be upheld.” Id. In other words, if the record “can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). However, “a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply proper legal standards.” Id.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) on May 15, 2013 alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2007. (AR 24, 350.) His application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. (AR 24.) Plaintiff then submitted a written request for a hearing before an ALJ and his first hearing was held before ALJ Richard Laverdure on February 17, 2016. (Id.) At that hearing, Plaintiff amended his disability onset date to February 21, 2012. (Id.) Plaintiff appeared telephonically at two later hearings on August 31, 2016 and October 24, 2016. (Id.) At the October 24, hearing Plaintiff's counsel requested that two medical experts be called to testify, but the ALJ denied that request. (Id.)

         On December 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 24-38.) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision which was denied on March 5, 2018 making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (AR 1-3.) Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision on April 24, 2018, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD

         The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Act taking into consideration the testimony and other evidence, and using the SSA's five-step sequential evaluation process for determining disability. (AR 24-38.)

         At Step One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his disability onset date of February 21, 2012. (AR 26.)

         At Step Two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: gastritis/colitis, status post left metacarpal fracture, rule out bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (without electromyography confirmation), hypertension, mild bilateral hearing loss, obesity, depression, anxiety, and polysubstance abuse/addiction (alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and ecstasy). (AR 27.)

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). (AR 28.) For Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ considered listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09. (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's mental impairments do not cause at least two “marked” limitations or one “extreme” limitation such that the Paragraph B criteria were not satisfied. (AR 29.)

         The ALJ next considered Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and concluded that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) except that he can occasionally perform repetitive fingering and can tolerate no more than moderate background noise (such as that in an office or grocery store) and that mentally, he can perform nonpublic simple, routine tasks, with no more than occasional co-worker interaction. (AR 29.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some alleged symptoms; however, [Plaintiff's] and his mother's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision.” (AR 30.) As relevant here, the ALJ gave significant weight to the physical and mental assessments of the State Agency consultants Drs. David and Gregg and no weight to examining psychologist Dr. Wiebe. (AR 35-36.)

         At Step Four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 37.)

         At Step Five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform including housekeeper, laundry worker, and garment sorter. (AR 37-38.) The ALJ based this determination on the testimony of the vocational expert ...


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