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Arana v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 5, 2019

JOSE M. ARANA, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ALLISON CLAIRE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34.[1] For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment will be DENIED, and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment will be GRANTED.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on December 30, 2016. Administrative Record (“AR”) 24, 142.[2] The disability onset date was alleged to be April 9, 2014. Id. at 99. The application was disapproved initially and on reconsideration. Id. at 96. On February 18, 2018, ALJ Serena Hong presided over the hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR 94-124 (transcript). Plaintiff appeared with his counsel Richard A. Whitaker. AR 96. Robert Rathky, a Vocational Expert (“VE”), also testified at the hearing by telephone. Id. at 96, 118.

         On April 9, 2018, the ALJ found plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d). AR 13-24 (decision), 25-29 (exhibit list). On July 17, 2018, after receiving Exhibit B30E, Representative Brief dated May 10, 2018, and Exhibit B14B, Request for Review dated May 14, 2018, as additional exhibits, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. AR 1-6 (decision and additional exhibit list).

         Plaintiff filed this action on August 16, 2018. ECF No. 1; see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the magistrate judge. ECF Nos. 5, 6. The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been fully briefed. ECF Nos. 15 (plaintiff's summary judgment motion), 17 (Commissioner's summary judgment motion), 20 (plaintiff's reply).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1963 and accordingly was, at age 49 and eight months, a younger person under the regulations at his alleged disability onset date of June 19, 2013.[3] AR 125. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and can communicate in English. AR 744, 928. Plaintiff was in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1981 to 2009 and worked as a postmaster for the U.S. Postal Service from 1984 to 2014. AR 419. Plaintiff was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. AR 115-16.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld “if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards.” Howard ex rel. Wolff v. Barnhart, 341 F.3d 1006, 1011 (9th Cir. 2003). “‘The findings of the Secretary as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ..'” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).

         Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” but “may be less than a preponderance.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). “It means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted). “While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those ‘reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice.” Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Although this court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Desrosiers v. Secretary of HHS, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (“The court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion; it may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.”).

         “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities.” Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). However, the court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision “and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003) (“It was error for the district court to affirm the ALJ's credibility decision based on evidence that the ALJ did not discuss”).

         The court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is “clear from the record that an ALJ's error was ‘inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.'” Robbins v. Commissioner, 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Commissioner, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         IV. RELEVANT LAW

         Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income are available for every eligible individual who is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 402(d)(1)(B)(ii) (DIB), 1381a (SSI). Plaintiff is “disabled” if he is “‘unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . ..'” Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987) (quoting identically worded provisions of 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A)).

         The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether an applicant is disabled and entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (setting forth the “five-step sequential evaluation process to determine disability” under Title II and Title XVI). The following summarizes the sequential evaluation:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b).

Step two: Does the claimant have a “severe” impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the claimant is not disabled.

Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c).

Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is ...

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