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Patricio v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. California, Eureka Division

September 25, 2019




         Plaintiff, Miguel Carlos Patricio, seeks judicial review of an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) decision denying his application for benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s unfavorable decision was denied by the Appeals Council, thus, the ALJ’s decision is the “final decision” of the Commissioner of Social Security, which this court may review. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Both parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge (dkts. 3 & 12), and both parties have moved for summary judgment (dkts. 22, 23 & 34).[1] For the reasons stated below, the court will grant Plaintiff’s amended motion for summary judgment and will deny Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.


         Commissioner’s findings “as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A district court has a limited scope of review and can only set aside a denial of benefits if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Flaten v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 979 (9th Cir. 1997). “In determining whether the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, ” a district court must review the administrative record as a whole, considering “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). The Commissioner’s conclusion is upheld where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).


         Plaintiff initially filed applications for Title XVI benefits, which were denied at hearings on March 5, 2010, and on November 29, 2012. See Administrative Record “AR”[2] at 50 & 60. On June 25, 2013, Plaintiff filed another application for benefits alleging an onset date of December 1, 2012. AR at 20. The ALJ denied the application on February 7, 2017, finding that Plaintiff had not sufficiently rebutted the presumption of continuing non-disability pursuant to Social Security Acquiescence Ruling (AR) 97-4(9) and Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691 (9th Cir. 1988). Id. at 20-27. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on March 19, 2018. Id. at 1-6.


         When he filed his most recent application for benefits, Plaintiff was 49 years old and had suffered chronic homelessness for the previous 20 years. AR at 20 & 482. In his application for disability, Plaintiff alleged that he suffered from the following physical and mental impairments: back and neck pain, fibromyalgia, hernia, kidney problems, cyst in kidney, migraines, chemical sensitivity, neurological problems, anxiety, depression, Somatic Symptom Disorder, and Personality Disorder. Id. at 20, 97-101, 108-13, 216-28, 182-92, 241, 269, 426-27, 482. Plaintiff presented many of these impairments at a hearing before an ALJ in support of his application for benefits in 2012, following which the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision that included a finding that Plaintiff suffered the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, a major depressive disorder, and marijuana dependence. Id. at 53.

         After that hearing, Plaintiff filed a new application for benefits, in which he presented new evidence in support of the additional impairments of an anxiety disorder, Somatic Symptom Disorder, and Personality Disorder. Specifically, in April of 2014, agency examiner Jodi D. Snyder, PsyD, diagnosed Plaintiff with Depressive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, and GAD. Id. at 427. On August 27, 2014, Plaintiff was examined by Elizabeth Walser, MSW, Psy.D. and Lesleigh Franklin, PhD, who diagnosed Plaintiff with Major Depressive Disorder, without Psychotic Features; Somatic Symptom Disorder, Persistent, Severe; Other Specified Personality Disorder, with Mixed Personality Features; and Allergies, Unspecified. Id. at 488. Dr. Franklin prescribed Baclofen for muscle spasms, Amitriptyline for depression and pain, Loratadine for allergies, Montelukast for bronchoconstriction, Fluticasone nasal spray, and Ibuprofen for pain. Id. at 483.


         A person filing a claim for social security disability benefits (“the claimant”) must show that she has the “inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment” which has lasted or is expected to last for twelve or more months. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.909. The ALJ must consider all evidence in the claimant’s case record to determine disability (see id. § 416.920(a)(3)), and must use a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether the claimant is disabled (see id. § 416.920). “[T]he ALJ has a special duty to fully and fairly develop the record and to assure that the claimant’s interests are considered.” Brown v. Heckler, 713 F.2d 441, 443 (9th Cir. 1983). Here, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s application for benefits under the required five-step sequential evaluation process. AR at 20-27. At Step One, the claimant bears the burden of showing he has not been engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since the alleged date the claimant became disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If the claimant has worked and the work is found to be substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. AR at 22.

         At Step Two, the claimant bears the burden of showing that he has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). “An impairment is not severe if it is merely ‘a slight abnormality (or combination of slight abnormalities) that has no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities.’” Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting S.S.R. No. 96–3(p) (1996)). The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; degenerative joint disease; affective disorders diagnosed as a depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. AR at 23.

         At Step Three, the ALJ compares the claimant’s impairments to the impairments listed in appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). The claimant bears the burden of showing her impairments meet or equal an impairment in the listing. Id. If the claimant is successful, a disability is presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant is unsuccessful, the ALJ assesses the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and proceeds to Step Four. See id. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. AR at 23. Next, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC “to perform light work . . . with occasional bilateral overhead reaching, ” with an ability to “perform simple routine tasks equating to unskilled work with occasional public contact.” Id. at 24.

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had no past relevant work, but upon considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience and RFC, and with the aid of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform some “jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 26. Thus, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in ...

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