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Laura C. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. California

January 2, 2020

LAURA C., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ON MOTION AND CROSS MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NOS. 21, 22]

          Hon. Mitchell D. Dembin United States Magistrate Judge

         This Report and Recommendation is submitted to United States Judge Anthony J. Battaglia pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Local Civil Rule 72.1(c) of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

         Plaintiff Laura C. (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final administrative decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). (ECF No. 21 at 2).[1] The final administrative decision of the Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Title II”) and for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Title XVI”). (AR 115).[2]

         For the reasons set forth herein, the Court recommends Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART and Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. Specifically, this Court RECOMMENDS that Plaintiff's request that the case be REMANDED for further proceedings is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1957. (AR 246). At the time the instant application was filed on February 26, 2014, Plaintiff was 56 years-old which categorized her as a person of advanced age. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963.

         A. Procedural History

         On February 26, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II. (AR 105). On January 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of Supplementary Security Income under Title XVI. (Id.). Both applications alleged a disability beginning February 12, 2014. (Id.). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id.). An administrative hearing was held on January 18, 2017. (Id.). Plaintiff appeared and was represented by attorney Holly McMahon. (Id.). Testimony was taken from Plaintiff, impartial medical expert John R. Morse, M.D., and impartial vocational expert Gloria J. Lasoff. (Id.). On March 21, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled from February 12, 2014 through the date of the decision and therefore denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits. (AR 115).

         On May 8, 2017, Plaintiff sought review with the Appeals Council. (AR 354). On March 20, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review and declared the ALJ's decision to be the Commissioner's final decision in Plaintiff's case. (AR 1). This timely civil action followed.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         Sections 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act allow unsuccessful applicants to seek judicial review of a final agency decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The scope of judicial review is limited in that a denial of benefits will not be disturbed if it is supported by substantial evidence and contains no legal error. Id.; see also Batson v. Comm'r of the SSA, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).

         Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997). “[I]t is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). The court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). If the evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the ALJ's decision. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. When the evidence is inconclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts in the testimony are functions solely of the Secretary.” Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982) (quoting Waters v. Gardner, 452 F.2d 855, 858 n.7 (9th Cir. 1971)).

         Even if a reviewing court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion, the court must set aside the decision if the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and reaching his or her decision. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. Section 405(g) permits a court to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The reviewing court may also remand the matter to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. Id.

         B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

         In rendering his decision, the ALJ followed the Commissioner's five step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since February 12, 2014. (AR 107).

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, and deep vein thrombosis. (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments. (AR 109) (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926)).

         Next, after considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the “residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), ” and announced the following residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

Perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the [Plaintiff] is limited to frequent climbing stairs and ramps, occasional climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolding, and frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and working at unprotected heights; and avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperature and vibration. (AR 110).

         The ALJ said that this RFC assessment was “consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. . . .” (Id.). The ALJ stated he considered the opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. 404.1527 and 416.927. (Id.).

         The ALJ then proceeded to step five of the sequential evaluation process. He found Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work. (AR 115). For the purposes of his step five evaluation, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”). (Id.). The VE testified that Plaintiff's past relevant work ...


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