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Deborah T. v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

October 25, 2019

DEBORAH T., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL,[2] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND

          HONORABLE JACQUELINE CHOOLJIAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         I. SUMMARY

         On November 14, 2018, plaintiff Deborah Thornton, who is proceeding pro se, filed a Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of plaintiff's application 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; November 16, 2018 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 April 30, 2014, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning on August 2, 2012, due to depression, low back pain, headaches, glaucoma and insomnia. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 28, 247-52, 272-73).[3] An ALJ examined the medical record and heard testimony from plaintiff (who was represented by counsel) and a vocational expert. (AR 70-93).

         On January 26, 2016, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled from April 30, 2014 through the date of the decision. (AR 28-35). Specifically, the ALJ found: (1) plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: tendonitis of the shoulder and low back pain (AR 30); (2) plaintiff's impairments, considered individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment (AR 31); (3) plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of medium work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967 (c)) (AR 31-35); (4) plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a home health aid and therefore is not disabled (AR 35); and (5) plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of subjective symptoms were not entirely credible. (AR 33).

         On August 16, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's application for review. (AR 1-6). Plaintiff thereafter filed a complaint with this Court in Thornton v. Berryhill, C.D. Cal. No. 17-7271-JC, which resulted in a stipulated remand for a new administrative hearing and consideration of all of plaintiff's medical evidence. (AR 535-38, 599-602, 605-06).

         On remand, a new ALJ examined the medical record and heard testimony from plaintiff, two medical experts, and a vocational expert. (AR 503-14). On November 2, 2018, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled from the April 30, 2014 application date through the date of the decision. (AR 470-80). The ALJ found: (1) plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: hypertension, lumbar strain, shoulder tendonitis, and major depressive disorder (AR 473); (2) plaintiff's impairments, considered individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment (AR 474-75 (giving weight to the medical expert opinions at ¶ 509-10)); (3) plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform medium work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967 (c)) limited to no climbing ladders or ropes, occasional postural activities, and simple repetitive work with no contact with the general public (AR 475-78 (adopting medical expert opinions at ¶ 509-11)); (4) plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work as a home health aid (AR 478); (5) there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform, specifically hand packager, conveyor feeder off bearer, and machine packager and therefore is not disabled (AR 478-79 (adopting vocational expert testimony at ¶ 511-12)); and (6) plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of subjective symptoms were not consistent with the medical evidence of record, which reportedly showed fairly good response to treatment (AR 478).

         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). Bu ...


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