United States District Court, C.D. California, Eastern Division
THOMAS M. S., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. ABRAMS, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
M. S. (“plaintiff”) filed this
action on March 23, 2019, seeking review of the
Commissioner's denial of his application for Supplemental
Security Income payments (“SSI”). The parties
filed Consents to proceed before a Magistrate Judge on April
10, 2019, and April 11, 2019. Pursuant to the Court's
Order, the parties filed a Joint Submission (alternatively
“JS”) on December 2, 2019, that addresses their
positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The
Court has taken the Joint Submission under submission without
was born in 1966. [Administrative Record (“AR”)
at 33, 249.] He has no past relevant work experience.
[Id. at 33, 72.]
October 2, 2014, plaintiff filed an application for SSI
payments, alleging that he has been unable to work since
August 1, 1984. [Id. at 249-54.] After his
application was denied initially and upon reconsideration,
plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [Id.
at 143-45.] A hearing was held on December 22, 2017, at which
time plaintiff appeared represented by an attorney, and
testified on his own behalf. [Id. at 41-78.] A
vocational expert (“VE”) also testified.
[Id. at 71-74.] On March 12, 2018, the ALJ issued a
decision concluding that plaintiff was not under a disability
since October 2, 2014, the date the application was filed.
[Id. at 23-35.] Plaintiff requested review of the
ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. [Id. at
248.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request
for review on February 27, 2019 [id. at 1-5], the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner. See Sam v. Astrue, 550 F.3d 808, 810
(9th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citations omitted).
This action followed.
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to
review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The
decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by
substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application
of improper legal standards. Berry v. Astrue, 622
F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
evidence . . . is ‘more than a mere scintilla[, ]'
. . . [which] means -- and means only -- ‘such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” Biestek v.
Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154, 203 L.Ed.2d 504 (2019)
(citations omitted); Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d
648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). “Where evidence is
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the
ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Revels,
874 F.3d at 654 (internal quotation marks and citation
omitted). However, the Court “must consider the entire
record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports
and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's
conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific
quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (quoting
Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir.
2014) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Court will
“review only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the
disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a
ground upon which he did not rely.” Id.
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also
SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 87, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87
L.Ed. 626 (1943) (“The grounds upon which an
administrative order must be judged are those upon which the
record discloses that its action was based.”).
EVALUATION OF DISABILITY
are “disabled” for purposes of receiving Social
Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any
substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental
impairment that is expected to result in death or which has
lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at
least twelve months. Garcia v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 768 F.3d 925, 930 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).
THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS
Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential
evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is
disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920;
Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th
Cir. 2006) (citing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094,
1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999)). In the first step, the Commissioner
must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in
substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not
disabled and the claim is denied. Lounsburry, 468
F.3d at 1114. If the claimant is not currently engaged in
substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the
Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a
“severe” impairment or combination of impairments
significantly limiting his ability to do basic work
activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and
the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant has a
“severe” impairment or combination of
impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to
determine whether the impairment or combination of
impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of
Impairments (“Listing”) set forth at 20 C.F.R.
§ 404, subpart P, appendix 1; if so, disability is
conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id.
If the claimant's impairment or combination of
impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the
Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to
determine whether the claimant has sufficient “residual
functional capacity” to perform his past work; if so,
the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied.
Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that he
is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin v.
Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). If the
claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of
disability is established. Id. The Commissioner then
bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not
disabled because there is other work existing in
“significant numbers” in the national or regional
economy the claimant can do, either (1) by the testimony of a
VE, or (2) by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines
at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2.
Lounsburry, 468 F.3d at 1114. The determination of
this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the
sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 721, 828 n.5 (9th
Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.
THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS
one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work.
[AR at 33.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has
the severe impairments of status post head trauma;
posttraumatic seizures; affective disorder; and organic
mental disorder. [Id. at 25.] At step three, the ALJ
determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or a
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any
of the impairments in the Listing. [Id. at 26.] The
ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium
work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) as
[He can] never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; must avoid
concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor
ventilation, etc. and all exposure to hazards such as
machinery and heights; able to understand, remember and carry
out simple one and two step instructions; able to maintain
concentration[, ] persistence and pace for periods of two
hours, perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular
attendance, be punctual, and complete a normal workday and
workweek, and make simple work-related decisions; limited to
infrequent contact with the public but able to relate
adequately to coworkers and supervisors; [he] can ask simple
questions, request assistance, accept instructions, and
respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and
would also be able to respond appropriately to changes in the
work setting and be aware of normal hazards.
[Id. at 28.] At step four, the ALJ concluded that
plaintiff has no past relevant work. [Id. at 33.] At
step five, based on plaintiff's RFC, vocational factors,
and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
plaintiff can perform, including work as a “laborer,
stores” (Dictionary of Occupational Titles
(“DOT”) No. 922.687-058), as a “machine
feeder” (DOT No. 699.686-010), and as a “hand
packager” (DOT No. 920.587-018). [AR at 34.]
Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not
disabled at any time since October 2, 2014, the date the
application was filed. [Id. at 35.]
contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) failed to properly
consider the totality and severity of plaintiff's mental
impairments and resulting mental limitations; and (2) failed
to properly consider plaintiff's subjective symptom
testimony. [JS at 4.] As set forth below, the Court agrees
with plaintiff and remands for further proceedings.