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Rios v. Saul

United States District Court, S.D. California

January 7, 2020

LILIA RIOS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT [ECF NOS. 13, 14]

          HONORABLE LINDA LOPEZ UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Lilia R. brings this action for judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's (“Commissioner's”) denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits. ECF No. 1. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 13 (“Pl.'s Mot.”)], Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion [ECF No. 14 (“Def.'s Mot.”) and Plaintiff's Reply in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 15 (“Pl.'s Reply”)].

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On December 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning November 21, 2013. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 163-64. On April 23, 2015, Plaintiff's claims were denied by initial determination. Id. at 95-100. On June 1, 2015, Plaintiff requested reconsideration. Id. at 101. On August 27, 2015, Plaintiff's application was denied on reconsideration. Id. at 102-106. On September 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. Id. at 108-109.

         On July 3, 2017, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mark Greenberg. Id. at 33-60. On November 2, 2017, the ALJ issued a partially favorable written decision in which he found that: (1) Plaintiff had been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from November 21, 2013 through February 3, 2017; and (2) Plaintiff's disability ended on February 4, 2017. Id. at 18-27.

         On November 2, 2017, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. Id. at 2. In a letter dated February 14, 2019, the Appeals Council found no basis for changing the ALJ's ruling. Id. at 2-5. The ALJ's decision thereafter became the Commissioner's final decision.

         On April 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant action for judicial review by the federal district court. ECF No. 1. On September 24, 2019, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 13. On October 24, 2019, Defendant filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. ECF No. 14. On November 6, 2019, Plaintiff filed a reply. ECF No. 15. Defendant did not file a reply. See Docket.

         SUMMARY OF THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ followed the Commissioner's five-step sequential evaluation process in his written decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 21, 2013, her alleged onset date. AR at 21.

         At step two, the ALJ found that from November 21, 2013 through February 3, 2017, Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, peripheral neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, and pronator cuff syndrome. Id. at 21-22.

         At step three, the ALJ found that from November 21, 2013 through February 3, 2017, Plaintiff had an impairment that medically equaled one of the impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments (specifically the criteria in Listings 1.04(A) and 11.14). Id. at 22.

         The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff did not develop any new impairments since February 4, 2017, and that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement beginning February 4, 2017. Id. at 24. Based on this improvement, the ALJ found beginning February 4, 2017, Plaintiff no longer had an impairment or combination of impairments that met, or medically equaled, the severity of one of the impairments listed in the Commissioner's Listing of Impairments. Id. at 25.

         In his RFC assessment, the ALJ found that beginning February 4, 2017, Plaintiff had residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with the following limitations: “lift or carry 10 pounds; frequent bend, stoop, crouch, crawl, climb, kneel, and balance; frequent fine or gross manipulation; occasional overhead reaching; and avoid exposure to cold temperatures.” Id.

         At step four, the ALJ found that beginning February 4, 2017, Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a “bank/order clerk, ” “customer service representative” and “data entry clerk.” Id. at 26.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of the Social Security Act permits unsuccessful applicants to seek judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of judicial review is limited. A denial of benefits will not be disturbed if it is supported by substantial evidence and contains no legal error. Id.; see also Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (citing Benton ex rel. Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003)).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance.” Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 509 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). It is “relevant evidence that, considering the entire record, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citation omitted). “In determining whether the [ALJ's] findings are supported by substantial evidence, [the court] must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [ALJ's] conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted). “Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision should be upheld.” Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674-75 (quoting Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007)). This includes deferring to the ALJ's consistency determinations and resolutions of evidentiary conflicts. See Lewis, 236 F.3d at 509. A court reviews “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.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted).

         Section 405(g) permits a court to enter 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.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's partially favorable decision on two grounds. First, Plaintiff contends the ALJ's rejection of her subjective symptom testimony was legal error. Pl.'s Mot. at 6-8. Second, Plaintiff contends the ALJ further erred by failing to discuss or otherwise consider a function report completed by a third party. Id. at 12-15.

         The Court addresses each ground below.

         I. Subjective Symptoms Testimony a. Relevant Law

         The Ninth Circuit has established a two-part test to determine “whether a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible[.]” See Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035-36 (9th Cir. 2007). “First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment ‘which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.'” Id. (quoting Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991)). The claimant “need not show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptom she has alleged; she need only show that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptom.” Id. (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1282 (9th Cir. 1996)).

         Second, if the claimant meets this first test and there is no evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of her symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). General findings are insufficient; the ALJ “must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints.” See Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The ALJ's findings must be “sufficiently ...


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