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Oblia v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. California

January 6, 2020

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Yvonne Rosita Oblia (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her application for supplemental security income pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The matter is currently before the Court on the parties' briefs which were submitted without oral argument to the Honorable Gary S. Austin, United States Magistrate Judge.[1] See Docs. 20, 24 and 25. Having reviewed the record as a whole, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and applicable law. Accordingly, Plaintiff's appeal is denied.

         II. Procedural Background

         On December 31, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income alleging disability beginning October 1, 2012. AR 15. The Commissioner denied the application initially on September 16, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 9, 2015. AR 15. On March 10, 2015, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. AR 15.

         Administrative Law Judge Phillip C. Lyman presided over an administrative hearing on September 11, 2017. AR 35-88. Plaintiff appeared and was represented by an attorney. AR 35. Medical expert Jeff Hansen, M.D., an orthopedist, and vocational expert Thomas G. Linvill testified. AR 15. On September 27, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application. AR 67-81.

         The Appeals Council denied review on July 24, 2018. AR 1-6. On September 18, 2018, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Doc. 1.

         III. Factual Background

         Plaintiff (born December 20, 1973) complained of intractable pain. AR 62. Although Plaintiff's social security record showed gaps in employment, she testified that she had worked as a live-in caregiver for seventeen years. AR 77. Plaintiff alleged that she had injured her back moving a wheelchair-dependent client up and down stairs. AR 80. The administrative record includes extensive evidence of Plaintiff's multiple impairments in recent years.

         IV. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), this court has the authority to review a decision by the Commissioner denying a claimant disability benefits. “This court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of disability insurance benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is evidence within the record that could lead a reasonable mind to accept a conclusion regarding disability status. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 522 (9th Cir. 1996) (internal citation omitted). When performing this analysis, the court must “consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Robbins v. Social Security Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         If the evidence reasonably could support two conclusions, the court “may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner” and must affirm the decision. Jamerson v. Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). “[T]he court will not reverse an ALJ's decision for harmless error, which exists when it is clear from the record that the ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. The Disability Standard

To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, a plaintiff must establish that he or she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if . . . his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To achieve uniformity in the decision-making process, the Commissioner has established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)-(f). The ALJ proceeds through the steps and stops upon reaching a dispositive finding that the claimant is or is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927, 416.929.

         Specifically, the ALJ is required to determine: (1) whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) whether the claimant had medically determinable “severe impairments, ” (3) whether these impairments meet or are medically equivalent to one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (4) whether the claimant retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past relevant work, and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the national and regional level. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f).

         VI. Summary of the ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2013. AR 17. Her severe impairments included migraine headache, back pain with mild degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, high blood pressure (well controlled with medication) and neck pain with hand spasms. AR 27. None of the severe impairments met or medically equaled one of the listed ...

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