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Webb v. Acting Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. California

December 12, 2019

STELLA WEBB, Plaintiff,



         Stella Marie Webb (“Plaintiff”) appeals from the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed below, the Court remands this matter for further administrative proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff seeks disability benefits for the period April 10, 2010 through March 31, 2014. See Dkt. 15 (Administrative Record (“AR”)) 15, 17. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on September 25, 2017, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. See AR 32-78. On April 3, 2018, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See AR 15-30. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “congestive heart failure; obesity; substance addiction disorder; depressive disorder; and left ankle fracture.” AR 17. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. See AR 18. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than the full range of light work with various limitations. See AR 19. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because she was capable of performing jobs that exist in the national economy, including those of an office helper, mail clerk, and cafeteria attendant. See AR 29.

         After the Appeals Council denied review, Plaintiff sought review in this Court. See generally Dkt. 1. In accordance with Civil Local Rule 16-5, the Parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. See generally Dkts. 21, 22. All Parties have consented to the jurisdiction of a magistrate judge. See Dkts. 9, 10.


         Plaintiff identifies a single issue for review. See generally Dkt. 21. In addition, Court identifies a preliminary issue.

         Preliminary issue identified by the Court:

1. The ALJ identifies Plaintiff's left ankle fracture as a severe impairment. However, Plaintiff's left ankle fracture occurred outside of the covered period. Additionally, without addressing the coverage issue, the ALJ discounts the treating physician's opinion on the basis of the physician's reliance on the fracture. Thus, there is an ambiguity as to what the ALJ considered to be Plaintiff's ankle impairment.

         Issue identified by Plaintiff:

2. Did the ALJ err in assigning greater weight to the opinions of the non-examining state medical consultants and the examining physician than the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Jenny Cohen?[1]


         This Court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny disability benefits, but “a federal court's review of Social Security determinations is quite limited.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Federal courts “leave it to the ALJ to determine credibility, resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities in the record.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on the application of improper legal standards. Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492. “Under the substantial-evidence standard, a court looks to an existing administrative record and asks whether it contains sufficient evidence to support the agency's factual determinations, ” and this threshold is “not high.” Biestek v. Berryhill, -- U.S. --, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (internal quotation marks, citation, and alteration omitted); see also Rounds v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (“Substantial evidence” means 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”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court “must consider the evidence as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Rounds, 807 F.3d at 1002 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Where “the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the Court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Id. (quoting Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012)).

         Even if the ALJ commits legal error, the ALJ's decision will be upheld if the error is harmless. See Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492. But “[a] reviewing court may not make independent findings based on the evidence before the ALJ to conclude that the ALJ's error was harmless.” Id. The Court is “constrained to review the reasons the ALJ asserts.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Additionally, “the burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111 (quoting Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)).

         IV. ...

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