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Hawley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

June 23, 2017

GREGG ANTHONY HAWLEY, Plaintiff(s),
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          NANCY J. KOPPE United States Magistrate Judge.

         This case involves judicial review of administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Currently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand. Docket No. 9. The Commissioner filed a response in opposition and a Cross-Motion to Affirm. Docket No. 10. Plaintiff filed a reply. Docket No. 11. The parties filed supplemental briefs. Docket No. 15, 16. This action was referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a report of findings and recommendation. The undersigned held a hearing on the motions on June 1, 2017. Docket No. 21.

         I. STANDARDS

         A. Judicial Standard of Review

         The Court's review of administrative decisions in social security disability benefits cases is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Akopyan v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002). Section 405(g) provides that, “[a]ny individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action . . . brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides.” The Court may enter, “upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” Id.

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are deemed conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. Id. To that end, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision denying benefits if the Commissioner applied the proper legal standard and there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision. See, e.g., Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). The Ninth Circuit defines substantial evidence as “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.” Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. See, e.g., Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

         Under the substantial evidence test, the Commissioner's findings must be upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). When the evidence will support more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the Commissioner's interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Consequently, the issue before this Court is not whether the Commissioner could reasonably have reached a different conclusion, but whether the final decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         It is incumbent on the ALJ to make specific findings so that the Court does not speculate as to the basis of the findings when determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ's findings should be as comprehensive and analytical as feasible and, where appropriate, should include a statement of subordinate factual foundations on which the ultimate factual conclusions are based, so that a reviewing court may know the basis for the decision. See, e.g., Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990).

         B. Disability Evaluation Process

         The individual seeking disability benefits bears the initial burden of proving disability. Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995). To meet this burden, the individual must demonstrate the “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). If the individual establishes an inability to perform his prior work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the individual can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in determining whether an individual is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If at any step the ALJ determines that he can make a finding of disability or nondisability, a determination will be made and no further evaluation is required. See Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful; it involves doing significant physical or mental activities usually for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572(a)-(b). If the individual is currently engaging in SGA, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is not engaging in SGA, then the analysis proceeds to the second step.

         The second step addresses whether the individual has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that significantly limits him from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when medical and other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on the individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521; Social Security Rulings (“SSRs”) 85-28 and 96-3p.[1] If the individual does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then the analysis proceeds to the third step.

         The third step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual's impairments or combination of impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal the criteria of a listing and meet the duration requirement, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509, then a finding of disabled is made, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(h). If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal the criteria of a listing or meet the duration requirement, then the analysis proceeds to the next step.

         Before considering step four of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ must first determine the individual's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The RFC is a function-by-function assessment of the individual's ability to do physical and mental work-related activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from impairments. SSR 96-8p. In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of the symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which the symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; SSRs 96-4p, 96-7p. To the extent that statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally-limiting effects of pain or other symptoms are not substantiated by objective medical evidence, the ALJ must make a finding on the credibility of the individual's statements based on a consideration of the entire case record. The ALJ must also consider opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p.

         The fourth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual has the RFC to perform her past relevant work (“PRW”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). PRW means work performed either as the individual actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established. In addition, the work must have lasted long enough for the individual to learn the job and perform at SGA. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565. If the individual has the RFC to perform his past work, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is unable to perform any PRW or does not have any PRW, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step.

         The fifth and final step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is able to do any other work considering his residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If he is able to do other work, then a finding of not disabled is made. Although the individual generally continues to have the burden of proving disability at this step, a limited burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the individual can do. Lockwood v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010).

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On March 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2012. Administrative Record (“A.R.”) 157-63. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on July 1, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 24, 2013. A.R. 95-99, 101-06. On November 5, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A.R. 107-08. On November 13, 2014, Plaintiff, Plaintiff's attorney, and a vocational expert appeared for a hearing before ALJ Cynthia R. Hoover. A.R. 34-61. On December 16, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from June 1, 2012, through the date of the decision. A.R. 14-33. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the ...


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