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Sweeney v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 19, 2019

ELISA M. SWEENEY, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          ALLISON CLAIRE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.[1]

         This Social Security matter was referred to the undersigned pursuant to Local Rule 302(c)(15). For the reasons that follow, the undersigned recommends plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment be DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits on September 1, 2015 and for supplemental security income on September 18, 2015. Administrative Record (“AR”) 17.[2] The disability onset date for both applications was alleged to be June 1, 2012. Id. The applications were disapproved initially and on reconsideration. Id. On May 10, 2017, ALJ Curtis Renoe presided over the video hearing on plaintiff's challenge to the disapprovals. AR 38 -93 (transcript). Plaintiff was present and testified at the hearing. AR 38. Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by Philip Armour. Id. Vocational Expert Michael Graham and witness Elora Pea were also present and testified. Id.

         On September 28, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding plaintiff “not disabled” under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i), 423(d), and Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). AR 17-28 (decision), 29-33 (exhibit list). On July 18, 2018, after receiving counsel's Representative Brief and Request for Review of Hearing Decision Dated October 19, 2017 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 1-5 (decision).

         Plaintiff filed this action on September 13, 2018. ECF No. 1; see 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, based upon the Administrative Record filed by the Commissioner, have been briefed. ECF Nos. 13 (plaintiff's summary judgment motion), 14 (Commissioner's summary judgment motion). No. reply brief was filed.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1973, and accordingly was 38 years old on the alleged disability onset date, making her a “younger person” under the regulations. AR 26; see 20 C.F.R §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c) (same). Plaintiff earned her GED in 1992 and can communicate in English. AR 262, 264.

         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 relevant 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. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 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. §§ 423(a)(1)(E) (DIB), 1381a (SSI). Plaintiff is “disabled” if she 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) and 416.920(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) and 416.920(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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