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Webb v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 6, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Nathan Alan Webb ("Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Titles II 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 Erica P. Grosjean, United States Magistrate Judge.[1] Upon a review of the administrative record, the Court finds the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and the case is remanded to the agency for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB in February 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2009. AR 199-201.[2] Plaintiff, a veteran, was wounded while serving in the military. He alleges that his impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), traumatic brain injury, light sensitivity, tinnitus, upper back and neck compression, debilitating headaches, and short-term memory issues prevent him from working. AR 251. As a result of these impairments, Plaintiff contends that he has postural limitations, and that he cannot walk more than fifteen to twenty minutes on a good day, pay attention for more than fifteen minutes, manage stress well, or handle changes in his routine. AR 279-280.

         His application was denied on July 9, 2013, and on reconsideration in March 10, 2014. AR 62-92. A hearing was conducted before Administrative Law Judge Danny Pitman ("ALJ") on November 6, 2014. AR 27-61. On November 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 8-20. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's appeal, rendering the order the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-3.

         Plaintiff now challenges that decision, arguing that: (1) the ALJ improperly considered Veteran's Affairs ("VA") 2010 and 2014 disability ratings that were submitted as part of his disability application, and (2) the ALJ's mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 16, pgs. 6-15 and Doc. 22, pgs. 3-5). Plaintiff argues that the Court should reverse and remand with instructions to award benefits. In the alternative, Plaintiff contends the case should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. (Doc.16, pg. 15). In opposition, Defendant argues: (1) that the ALJ properly considered the VA's disability ratings; and (2) the ALJ's RFC formulation was proper. (Doc. 21, pgs. 7-11).


         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. § 404.1502(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. § 404.1502(a)(4). The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion testimony. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527.

         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] (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 RFC to perform his or her past relevant work, [4]and (5) whether the claimant had the ability to perform other jobs existing in significant numbers at the regional and national level. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)-(f).

         Using the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not meet the disability standard. AR 20. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. AR 11. Further, the ALJ identified traumatic brain injury, migraine headaches, PTSD, obstructive sleep apnea, back disorder, a history of knee strain, and obesity as severe impairments. AR 11. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 12-13.

         Based on a review of the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work except that:

[Plaintiff can] occasionally lift and carry up to 50 pounds and frequently 25. Stand and or walk for 6 hours and sit for 6 to 8 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant can engage in frequent balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing ramps and stairs. He should not engage in climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to noise, vibration, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, bright lights, and extreme heat and cold. He ...

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