United States District Court, D. Nevada
MOTION FOR REVERSAL AND/OR REMAND [ECF NO. 21],
CROSS-MOTION TO AFFIRM [ECF NO. 22]
Ferenbach United States Magistrate Judge
matter involves Plaintiff Dayna Brooks' appeal from the
Commissioner's final decision denying Brooks' social
security benefits. Before the Court is Brooks' Motion for
Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 21) and the
Commissioner's Cross-Motion to Affirm (ECF No. 22). For
the reasons stated below, the Brooks' motion to reverse
or remand is granted and the Commissioner's motion to
affirm is denied.
Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from depriving
persons of property without due process of law. U.S. Const.
amend. V. Social security claimants have a constitutionally
protected property interest in social security benefits.
Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976);
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).
District Court's review is limited. Brown-Hunter v.
Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (“[I]t
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.” 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. Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); 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.”
Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197
(1938); Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740
F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014).
evidence supports more than one interpretation, the Court
must uphold the Commissioner's interpretation. Burch
v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). This
means that the Commissioner's decision will be upheld if
it has any support in the record. See, e.g.,
Bowling v. Shalala, 36 F.3d 431, 434 (5th Cir. 1988)
(stating that the court may not reweigh evidence, try the
case de novo, or overturn the Commissioner's
decision if the evidence preponderates against it).
case, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
followed the five-step sequential evaluation process in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ concluded Brooks did not
engage in substantial gainful activity during the relevant
timeframe. (ECF No. 14-1 at 17). The ALJ found Brooks
suffered from medically determinable severe impairments
consisting of a history of Lyme disease, cardiomyopathy,
chronic pain syndrome, a history of joint pain, degenerative
disk disease, mild degenerative changes of the cervical
spine, and adjustment disorder with depressed
mood/depression, but the impairments did not meet or equal
any listed impairment under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1. (Id. at 18-19). The ALJ concluded
Brooks' residual functional capacity, in additional to
physical limitations, “is limited to understanding,
remembering and carrying out instructions, and exercising
judgment, to perform work tasks that are commensurate with
the functions of the unskilled occupational base.”
(Id. at 20). A vocational expert testified that
“there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in
the national economy that the claimant can perform.”
(Id. at 26). The ALJ found that Brooks was not under
a disability as defined in the Social Security Act.
(Id. at 27).
challenges this finding. Brooks argues the ALJ rejected the
findings of Dr. Larson without a legally sufficient
rationale. (ECF No. 21 at 4). The Commissioner argues the ALJ
actually accepted Dr. Larson's findings and incorporated
them into Brooks' residual functional capacity. (ECF No.
22 at 3).
Dr. Larson's Findings
Larson performed a consultative psychological examination on
Brooks. (ECF No. 14-1 at 24). Dr. Larson found that
Brooks' “[d]iminshed pace along with multiple
physical concerns would still restrict her capacity to
consistently maintain tasks even” at the basic level of
simple one- or two-step instructions. (Id. at 821).
Dr. Larson opined that Brooks had moderate limitations in her
ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions and to make judgments on simple work-related
decisions. (Id. at 824). A moderate limitation was
defined as follows: “There is more than a slight
limitation in this area but the individual is still able to
function satisfactorily.” (Id.). A marked
limitation, one step above moderate, was defined as follows:
“There is a serious limitation in this area. There is a
substantial loss in the ability to effectively
function.” (Id.). Asked in a section of her
report, “Are any other capabilities affected by the
impairment?” Dr. Larson responded, “Slow
cognitive processing and diminished pace would impact the
claimant's ability to sustain work functions.”
(Id. at 825).
evaluating Brooks' residual functional capacity, the ALJ
stated, “Giving the claimant the benefit of the doubt,
and based on her…somewhat slow cognitive processing
pace, I have limited her to…perform work tasks that
are commensurate with the functions of the unskilled
occupational based.” (ECF No. 14-1 at 24). The ALJ
noted Dr. Larson's opinion that Brooks had “only
moderate impairments in regards to simple
instructions.” (Id. at 25). The ALJ afforded
Dr. Larson's opinion “some weight, to the extent it
is consistent with the claimant's residual functional
capacity.” (Id.). “While Dr. Larson did
note that the claimant exhibited slow pace and some confusion
during the examination (Exhibit 24F), mental status
examination was otherwise, not particularly remarkable.
Documented complaints were limited, and the claimant received
no mental health treatment.” (Id.). In the
hypothetical to the Vocational Expert, the ALJ limited Brooks
to “work tasks that are commensurate with the functions
of the unskilled occupational base” with no further
limitations on Brooks' pace or ability to carry out
instructions. (Id. at 89).
providing the vocational expert with any specific limitations
on Brooks' ability to perform unskilled work, the ALJ
essentially concluded that Brooks was not substantially
limited in her ability to consistently carry out simple
instructions. “The basic mental demands of competitive,
remunerative, unskilled work include the abilities (on a
sustained basis) to: understand, carry out, and remember
simple instructions.” Social Security Program
Operations Manual System DI 25020.010(A)(3)(a). “A
substantial loss of ability to meet any of the basic mental
demands…would justify a finding of inability ...