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Warren v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

May 17, 2017

REX WARREN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


         This Report and Recommendation is made to the Honorable Robert C. Jones, United States District Judge. The action was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and LR IB 1-4. Before the court is plaintiff's motion for reversal and/or remand (ECF No. 13), defendant's cross-motion to affirm (ECF Nos. 14, 15), and plaintiff's reply (ECF No. 16). For the reasons set forth herein, the court recommends that plaintiff's motion be denied, and defendant's cross-motion be granted.


         On August 31, 2010, Rex Warren (“plaintiff”) protectively filed for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2009. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 23, 133-36.) The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application in the first instance on February 3, 2011, and upon reconsideration on January 26, 2012. (Id. at 83-87, 94-97.)

         On October 10, 2012, plaintiff and his attorney appeared for a video hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lisa D. Thompson. (Id. at 39-72.) Carly Coughlin, a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared at the hearing. (Id.) The ALJ issued a written decision on October 24, 2012, finding that plaintiff had not been disabled at any time between the alleged onset date and the date of the decision. (Id. at 23-34.) Plaintiff appealed, and the Appeals Council denied review on January 14, 2014. (Id. at 11-15.) Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner (“defendant”). Having exhausted all administrative remedies, plaintiff filed a complaint for judicial review on August 3, 2016. (ECF No. 1.)


         The initial burden of proof to establish disability in a claim for SSDI benefits rests upon the claimant. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). To satisfy this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months . . ..” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         This court has jurisdiction to review an ALJ's decision to deny a claim for benefits after the claimant has exhausted all administrative remedies. See Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161-62 (9th Cir. 2012). The court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it rests on legal error or is unsupported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”). The substantial evidence standard is not onerous. It is “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         Although the ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in the record, she cannot ignore or omit evidence that is significant or probative. Hiler v. Astrue, 687 F.3d 1208, 1212 (9th Cir. 2012). The ALJ's discussion must adequately explain the decision in light of such evidence. “The ALJ, not the district court, is required to provide specific reasons for rejecting [the evidence.]” Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (specifically discussing rejection of lay testimony). The district court's review is thus constrained to the reasons asserted by the ALJ. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must look at the record as a whole, considering both evidence that supports and undermines the ALJ's decision; it “may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation omitted). Where “the evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the decision of the ALJ must be upheld.” Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation omitted). The ALJ alone is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010.


         A. SSDI claims are evaluated under a five-step sequential process.

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant is “disabled” for the purposes of SSDI. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). Step one directs the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the Commissioner denies the claim. Id. § 404.1520(b).

         The second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's medically determinable impairment is “severe.” Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). “Severe” impairments are those that significantly limit the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. § 404.1520(c). The Commissioner will deny the claim if the claimant lacks a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Id.

         At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those listed in the Social Security Regulations at 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). The list in Appendix 1 “define[s] impairments that would prevent an adult, regardless of his [or her] age, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity, not just substantial gainful activity.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990) (internal quotation omitted) (emphasis in original). Where the claimant's impairment is on the list, or is equivalent to a listed impairment, and the claimant also meets the corresponding durational requirement, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(d). However, for an impairment to match a listing, ...

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