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Avinger v. Saul

United States District Court, C.D. California

December 17, 2019

MARVIN AVINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

          JOHN E. MCDERMOTT UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         PROCEEDINGS

         On October 23, 2018, Marvin Avinger (“Plaintiff” or “Claimant”) filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. (Dkt. 1.) The Commissioner filed an Answer on February 6, 2019. (Dkt. 16.) On July 3, 2019, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation (“JS”). (Dkt. 23.) The matter is now ready for decision.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record (“AR”), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision must be reversed and this case remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this Memorandum Opinion and Order and law.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a 56 year-old male who applied for Supplemental Security Income benefits on December 11, 2014, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2006. (AR 13.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 11, 2014, the application date. (AR 15.)

         Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on May 4, 2015, and on reconsideration on August 7, 2015. (AR 13.) Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Robert Lenzini on August 14, 2017, in San Bernardino, California. (AR 13.) Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. (AR 13.) Plaintiff's case worker, Paul Terrazas, also appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 13.) Vocational expert (“VE”) Carmen Roma appeared telephonically at the hearing. (AR 13.)

         The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on December 6, 2017. (AR 13-26.) The Appeals Council denied review on August 24, 2018. (AR 1-3.)

         DISPUTED ISSUES

         As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, Plaintiff raises the following disputed issues as grounds for reversal and remand:

1. Whether the ALJ carried the Administrations' burden at step 5.
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's cane testimony.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); see also DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991) (ALJ's disability determination must be supported by substantial evidence and based on the proper legal standards).

         Substantial evidence means “‘more than a mere scintilla,' but less than a preponderance.” Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). “However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability 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 . . . can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         The first step is to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. Parra v. Astrue,481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, disability benefits will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert,482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit the claimant's ability to work. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290. Third, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment is listed, or equivalent to an impairment listed, in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix I of the regulations. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work. Pinto v. Massanari,249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001). Before making the step four determination, the ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The RFC is “the most [one] can still do despite [his or her] limitations” ...


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