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Bronson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

July 12, 2017

ELLEN M. BRONSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         This Report and Recommendation is made to the Honorable Larry R. Hicks, Senior United States District Judge. The action was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and the Local Rules of Practice, LR IB 1-4.

         Before the court is Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and Remand. (ECF No. 13.) The Commissioner filed a Cross-Motion to Affirm and Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand. (ECF Nos. 14, 15.)[1] Plaintiff filed a response to the cross-motion and reply in support of her motion. (ECF No. 17.)

         After a thorough review, the court recommends that Plaintiff's motion be granted in part; the Commissioner's cross-motion be denied; and, that the action be remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 7 and 11, 2013, Plaintiff completed applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning September 30, 2012. (Administrative Record (AR) 202-212.) The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 119-121, 126-131.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (AR 133-34.) ALJ Eileen Burlison held a hearing on October 21, 2014. (AR 42-72.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified on her own behalf at the hearing. Testimony was also taken from a vocational expert (VE). On January 30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 21-41.) Plaintiff requested review, and the Appeals Council denied the request, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ failed to properly account for Plaintiff's limitations resulting from her severe impairment of gastritis; (2) the ALJ did not properly explain the great weight given to the non-examining stage agency consultants over Plaintiff's treating physician; and (3) the hypothetical posed to the VE did not account for the limitations associated with Plaintiff's gastritis.


         A. Substantial Evidence

         The court must affirm the ALJ's determination if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Gutierrez v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "Substantial evidence 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.'" Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 523-24 (quoting Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012)).

         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. Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 524 (citing Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001)). The court "'may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)). "'The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.'" Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, 'the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment' for that of the Commissioner." Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 524 (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1996)). That being said, "a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply proper legal standards." Id. (citing Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009); Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003)). In addition, the court will "review 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, 759 F.3d at 1010 (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).

         B. Five-Step Evaluation of Disability

         Under the Social Security Act, "disability" is the inability to engage "in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant "shall be determined to be under 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).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 and § 416.920; see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987). In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); § 416.920(a)(4)(i); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to step two.

         The second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments are "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c) and § 416.920(a)(4)(ii); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. An impairment is severe if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id.

         In the third step, the Commissioner looks at a number of specific impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Listed Impairments) and determines whether the impairment meets or is the equivalent of one of the Listed Impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d) and § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (c). The Commissioner presumes the Listed Impairments are severe enough to preclude any gainful activity, regardless of age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listed Impairments, and is of sufficient duration, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d), § 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairment is severe, but does not meet or equal one of the Listed Impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f) and § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f). Past relevant work is that which a claimant performed in the last fifteen years, which lasted long enough for him or her to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565(a) and § 416.920(b)(1).

         In making this determination, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and the physical and mental demands of the work previously performed. See id.; 20 C.F.R.. § 404.1520(a)(4); see also Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). RFC is what the claimant can still do despite his or her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 1545 and § 416.945. In determining RFC, the Commissioner must assess all evidence, including the claimant's and others' descriptions of limitation, and medical reports, to determine what capacity the claimant has for work despite the impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) and § 416.945(a)(3).

         A claimant can return to previous work if he or she can perform the "actual functional demands and job duties of a particular past relevant job" or "[t]he functional demands and job duties of the [past] occupation as generally required by employers throughout the national economy." Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 845 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         If the claimant can still do past relevant work, then he or she is not disabled for purposes of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f) and § 416.920(f); see also Berry, 62 F.3d at 131 ("Generally, a claimant who is physically and mentally capable of performing past relevant work is not disabled, whether or not he could actually obtain employment.").

         If, however, the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at step five that the claimant can perform work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e) and § 416.290(e); see also Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42, 144. This means "work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country." Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 528. If the claimant cannot do the work he or she did in the past, the Commissioner must consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether the claimant can do other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42. The Commissioner may meet this burden either through the testimony of a vocational expert or by reference to the Grids. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999).

         "The grids are matrices of the four factors identified by Congress-physical ability, age, education, and work experience-and set forth rules that identify whether jobs requiring specific combinations of these factors exist in significant numbers in the national economy." Lockwood v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Grids place jobs into categories by their physical-exertional requirements, and there are three separate tables, one for each category: sedentary work, light work, and medium work. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 2, § 200.00. The Grids take administrative notice of the numbers of unskilled jobs that exist throughout the national economy at the various functional levels. Id. Each grid has various combinations of factors relevant to a claimant's ability to find work, including the claimant's age, education and work experience. Id. For each combination of factors, the Grids direct a finding of disabled or not disabled based on the number of jobs in the national economy in that category. Id.

         If at step five the Commissioner establishes that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy, then he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566. Conversely, if the Commissioner determines the claimant unable to adjust to any other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g); see also Lockwood, 616 F.3d at 1071; Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009).


         A. ALJ's Findings in this Case

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of September 30, 2012. (AR 23.)

         At step two, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: steroid responsive arthropathy, seronegative rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, gastro-intestinal reflux disease, and gastritis. (AR 23.)

         At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the Listed Impairments. (AR 28.)

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff as having the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except she was limited to lifting/carrying ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; she could sit, stand, and walk for six hours each in an eight-hour workday; she could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she could frequently climb stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds; she should avoid hazards involving working at heights or operating dangerous moving machinery; she would need proximity to a restroom on occasion; she should not perform work that requires persistent visual acuity; she could understand and remember simple, detailed and complex instructions and could relate to the public, supervisors and coworkers. (AR 29.)

         At step five, the ALJ relied on testimony from the VE to conclude that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a retail sales clerk. (AR 34-35.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that existed in the national economy in significant numbers including a storage facility rental clerk and cashier. (AR 35-36.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from September 30, 2012 through the date of the decision. (AR 36.)

         B. RFC & Gastritis Limitations 1. Summary of Argument

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC determination was incomplete because it did not adequately account for her functional limitations related to her gastritis. While the ALJ's RFC acknowledged the need for additional bathroom breaks through the requirement of proximity to a bathroom, Plaintiff contends that it failed to fully consider the impact of her symptoms to the extent she would be absent from her workstation and off-task while in the restroom. (ECF No. 13-1 at 13.) In other words, Plaintiff asserts that by not incorporating the time she would need for the additional restroom breaks into the RFC, the ALJ failed to properly determine the maximum RFC. (Id. at 14.) As a result, Plaintiff contends the matter should be remanded for further consideration of Plaintiff's RFC, including the impact of these symptoms, pursuant to Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. (Id.) Plaintiff points out that the VE testified that if the restroom breaks added up to more than ten percent of time off-task, she would be precluded from working any jobs in the national economy. In support of her argument, Plaintiff relies on a 2012 District of Oregon case, Allen v. Astrue, No. 6:11-cv-06322-KI, 2012 WL 4792412 (D. Or. Oct. 9, 2012), and a 2013 Western District of Washington Case, Taylor v. Astrue, No. C12-1069-MJP-MAT, 2013 WL 607436 (W.D. Wash. Jan. 28, 2013).

         The Commissioner argues that Plaintiff mistakenly claims the RFC is incomplete because it does not address the time she needs for restroom breaks. (ECF Nos. 14/15 at 5.) The Commissioner asserts that Plaintiff cites no evidence in the record showing she needs unscheduled breaks due to her gastritis, much less breaks that would result in her being off task ten percent or more of the workday. (Id.) Instead, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ considered the entire record and assessed an RFC that adequately accommodated Plaintiff's gastritis by calling for proximity to the bathroom. (Id ...

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