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Cerrillo v. Saul

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 3, 2019

JOHN P. CERRILLO, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Defendant.

          ORDER REMANDING FOR PAYMENT OF BENEFITS

          RICHARD SEEBORG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff John Cerrillo appeals the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying him disability benefits under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) reviewed Cerrillo's application and determined he was not disabled and thus not eligible for benefits. Upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and for the reasons discussed below, the ALJ's decision is vacated and the matter is remanded for payment of benefits consistent with this opinion.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Cerrillo is a fifty-one-year-old man with a history of physical and mental impairments. In May 2014, he filed applications for disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income based on his alleged degenerative disc disease of the lumber and cervical spines, right ankle trauma, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and stomach tumor. He has a high-school education and previously worked as a clerk and recreational facility manager. The alleged onset date of his disability was May 1, 2014. The Commissioner denied his application initially and on reconsideration.

         Cerrillo appeared in front of an ALJ in October 2016. At that hearing, Cerrillo testified about his own disabilities. The ALJ also considered a statement from Cerrillo's mother, as well as the opinions of several doctors-some of whom had treated or examined Cerrillo. Finally, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing and responded to several hypotheticals posed by the ALJ. In February 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Cerrillo not disabled. The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. This action followed.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits under the SSA. An ALJ's decision to that effect must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error. Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 388 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance-it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995) (per curiam). In determining whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court must examine the administrative record as a whole, considering all of the facts. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1258. “If additional proceedings can remedy defects in the original administrative proceeding, a social security case should be remanded.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1019 (9th Cir. 2014) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         A person is “disabled” for the purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if he is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which is expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner must follow a five-step sequential inquiry. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). The burden rests on the claimant to prove: (1) he is not working; (2) he has a severe medically determinable impairment that is expected to last more than twelve months; and either (3) that impairment is severe enough to meet or equal an impairment listed as a priori disabling without further vocational-medical evidence; or (4) the impairment causes such functional limitations that he cannot do his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(iv).

         If the claimant successfully proves he cannot do his past work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show at step five that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the economy; otherwise, the claimant will be found disabled. Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009). Moreover, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment under step three, the ALJ must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and apply it during steps four and five to make a final disability determination. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1034 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), which describes the five-step process). An individual's RFC is the most they can still do despite their limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1).

         B. ALJ Application of Standard

         Here, the ALJ followed this five-step inquiry. At step one, he found that Cerrillo had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of May 1, 2014. At step two, he found that Cerrillo had several severe impairments: depression, PTSD, right ankle trauma, opioid dependence, degenerative disc disease in the cervical and lumber spines, and a stomach tumor. The ALJ mentioned that all other conditions in the medical record would be considered non-severe “[d]ue to a lack of objective medical signs and laboratory findings of a longitudinal nature.” Administrative Record ...


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