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Joyce v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

July 31, 2017

NATHAN A. JOYCE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter involves Plaintiff Nathan A. Joyce's appeal from Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's (the “Commissioner's”) final decision denying Joyce disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. Before the Court are Joyce's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 17), the Commissioner's Cross-Motion to Affirm and Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 18), and Joyce's Reply (ECF No. 20). The undersigned United States Magistrate Judge has received the written consent of both parties and now presides over this case under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73. (See ECF No. 21). The Court has reviewed the record in this case, the briefs of the parties, and Ninth Circuit law. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         Nathan Joyce is a 51-year-old male who filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on April 4, 2013. (See ECF No. 16-1 at 221, 228).[1]For both applications, Joyce is alleging disability beginning on September 26, 2012. (Id.). The claims were denied initially on September 5, 2013, and on reconsideration on March 7, 2014. (Id. at 155, 165, 170). Shortly thereafter, Joyce filed a written request for hearing. (Id. at 175). In May 2015, Joyce, Joyce's attorney, and vocational expert Gerald Davis, appeared and testified at a hearing in Las Vegas. (Id. at 49). In June 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision. (Id. at 22). Joyce appealed. (Id. at 17). The Appeals Council declined review in September 2016, making the ALJ's decision final. (Id. at 1). Joyce then timely initiated the instant action. (See ECF No. 1).

         II. Disputed Issue

         Joyce's appeal challenges the ALJ's decision on one issue: whether the ALJ articulated clear and convincing reasons for discounting Joyce's subjective testimony and complaints?

         III. Standard of Review

         The Fifth Amendment prohibits the Government from depriving persons of property without due process of law. (See U.S. Const. amend. V.). Social security claimants have a constitutionally protected property interest in social security benefits. (See Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976); see also Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1203 (9th Cir. 1990)). Where, as here, the Commissioner of Social Security renders a final decision denying a claimant's benefits, the Social Security Act authorizes the District Court to review the Commissioner's decision. (See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(c); Fed.R.Civ.P. 73).

         The District Court's review is limited. (See Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (“For highly fact-intensive individualized determinations like a claimant's entitlement to disability benefits, Congress ‘places a premium upon agency expertise, and, for the sake of uniformity, it is usually better to minimize the opportunity for reviewing courts to substitute their discretion for that of the agency.'” (quoting Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014)))).

         The Court examines the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and (2) the decision is supported by “substantial evidence.” (See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004)). Substantial evidence is defined as “more than a mere scintilla” of evidence. (See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). This means such relevant “evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” (See Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938) (defining “a mere scintilla” of evidence); see also Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014) (“The court must consider the record as a whole and weigh ‘both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's' factual conclusions.” (quoting Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001)))).

         If the evidence supports more than one interpretation, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation. (See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1988) (“we may not reweigh evidence, try the case de novo, or overturn the Commissioner's decision if the evidence preponderates against it.”) (quotation marks and citation omitted). In weighing the evidence and making findings, the ALJ must apply the proper legal standards. (See Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 523 (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))).

         IV. The ALJ's 2015 Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth at §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 and issued an unfavorable decision against Joyce on June 18, 2015. (See ECF No. 16-1 at 22). At step one, the ALJ found that Joyce had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from his alleged disability onset date of September 26, 2012. (Id. at 27). At step two, the ALJ found that Joyce had the following severe medical impairment for Social Security purposes: disorder of the lumbar spine (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). (Id.).

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Joyce did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Id. at 29). Continuing the process at step three, the ALJ reviewed the evidence within the record and found that Joyce demonstrated the RFC “to perform light work … except he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.” (Id.). The ALJ found that Joyce “needs to avoid concentrated exposures to excessive vibration, and all exposure to hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, and operational control of moving machinery.” (Id.). The ALJ also found that Joyce “can stand and/or walk for four hours in an eight-hour day.” (Id.).

         At step four, the ALJ, relying on the testimony of vocational expert Dr. Gerald Davis, found that Joyce was unable to perform his past relevant work as a stock clerk, fast food worker, cabinet assembler, cook, kitchen helper, construction worker, laborer, carpenter, roofer, and drywall installer. (Id. at 32). At step five, the ALJ again relied on the testimony of the vocational expert, and considering Joyce's age, education, work experience, and RFC, found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Joyce could perform, such as locker room attendant and electrical assembler. (Id. at 33). Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded that Joyce was not disabled from September ...

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