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Brooks v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

January 12, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Cam Ferenbach United States Magistrate Judge

         This 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.

         Standard of Review

         The 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).

         The 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).

         If the 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).


         In this 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).

         Brooks 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).

         I. Dr. Larson's Findings

         Dr. 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).

         II. ALJ's Findings

         In 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).

         By not 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 ...

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