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Butcher v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. California

September 19, 2019

MARJORIE LEE BUTCHER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          ORDER: (1) DENYING PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [Doc. No. 24], (2) GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [Doc. No. 27]

          MARILYN L. HUFF, District Judge UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         On August 23, 2018, Plaintiff Marjorie Lee Butcher, a 56-year-old woman, filed a complaint against Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, seeking judicial review of an administrative denial of disability benefits under the Social Security Act. (Doc. No. 1.) On December 21, 2018, the Acting Commissioner answered Plaintiff’s complaint and lodged the administrative record. (Doc. Nos. 8, 9.) On April 23, 2019, the Acting Commissioner lodged an Amended Administrative Record. (Doc. No. 19.) On June 19, 2019, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to reverse the Acting Commissioner’s final decision and remand for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. No. 24.) On August 28, 2019, the Commissioner cross-moved for summary judgment, asking the Court to affirm the Acting Commissioner’s final decision. (Doc. No. 27.) On September 11, 2019, Plaintiff filed a reply to the Commissioner’s Response. (Doc. No. 29.) On September 18, 2019, the Commissioner responded to Plaintiff’s Reply. (Doc. No. 30.) For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment and DENIES Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 1, 2014 Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II and Title XVI application for a period of disability insurance benefits alleging disability beginning September 30, 2012. (Doc. No. 19, AR 17.) The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) initially denied Plaintiff’s application for benefits on October 14, 2014 and denied reconsideration on March 27, 2015. (Id.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was held on May 28, 2015. (Id.) Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. (Id.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Bonnie Sinclair, an independent vocational expert. (Id.)

         On September 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision, analyzing Plaintiff’s claim and determining that Plaintiff had not met her burden of proof. (Id.) SSA regulations require ALJs to use the following five-step inquiry when determining whether an applicant qualifies for disability benefits: (1) has the claimant been gainfully employed since the time of the disability onset date; (2) “is the claimant’s impairment severe”; (3) “does the impairment ‘meet or equal’ one of a list of specific impairments described in the regulations, ” and if not, what is the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2]; (4) is the claimant capable of performing past relevant work; and (5) “is the claimant able to do any other work.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v).

         Here, the ALJ determined at step one that Plaintiff had not been gainfully employed since the disability onset date of September 30, 2012. (Doc. No. 19, AR 20.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the spine. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that amounted to one of the SSA regulations’ enumerated impairments. (Id. AR 23–24.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had a RFC to perform the full range of “light work, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b). (Id. AR 24.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a cashier or as a sales clerk. (Id. AR 28.)

         Consequently, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from September 30, 2012, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured. (Id. AR 29.) On June 25, 2018, the Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, rendering the ALJ’s decision final. (Id. AR 1.)

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         I. The Social Security Administration’s Sequential Five-Step Inquiry

         The SSA employs a sequential five-step evaluation to determine whether a claimant is eligible for benefits under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)–(v). To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must establish that he or she is “disabled, ” meaning that the claimant 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995).

         Step one in the sequential evaluation considers a claimant’s “work activity, if any.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). An ALJ will deny a claimant disability benefits if the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

         If a claimant cannot provide proof of gainful work activity, the ALJ proceeds to step two to ascertain whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The so-called “severity regulation” dictates the ALJ’s step-two analysis. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140–41 (1987). Specifically, an ALJ will deny a claimant’s disability claim if the ALJ does not find that a claimant suffers from a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, which significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do “basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

         If the impairment is severe, however, the evaluation proceeds to step three. At step three, the ALJ determines whether the impairment is equivalent to one of several enumerated impairments that the SSA deems so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). An ALJ conclusively presumes a claimant is disabled if the impairment meets or equals one of the enumerated impairments. Id.

         If the ALJ concludes that a claimant does not suffer from one of the SSA regulations’ enumerated severe impairments, the ALJ must determine the claimant’s RFC before proceeding to step four of the inquiry. Id. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). An individual’s RFC is his or her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his or her impairments. See id. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The RFC analysis considers whether the claimant’s “impairment(s), and any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical and mental limitations that affect what [the claimant] can do in a work setting.” Id. In establishing a claimant’s RFC, the ALJ must assess relevant medical ...


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