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Fenton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 9, 2018

DOUGLAS R. FENTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant

          REPORT & RECOMMENDATION

          C.W. Hoffman, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a report of findings and recommendations under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)-(C) and Local Rule IB 1-4. The case involves review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security[1] (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Douglas Fenton's (“Plaintiff”) application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's motion to remand (ECF No. 13), filed March 7, 2017, and the Commissioner's response and cross-motion to affirm (ECF Nos. 14, 15), filed April 7, 2017, and Plaintiff's Reply (ECF No. 16), filed April 27, 2017. The Court also considered the Commissioner's surreply to Plaintiff's Reply (ECF No. 18), filed February 7, 2018.

         BACKGROUND

         1. Procedural History

         In February 2013, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2013. AR[2] 180-181. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, and on reconsideration. AR 96, 102. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 3, 2015. AR 26-68. On April 17, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 10-20. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-4. Plaintiff, on October 7, 2016, commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). See ECF No. 1.

         2. The ALJ Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. AR 10-12. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of January 1, 2013. AR 12. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had medically determinable “severe” impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spinal areas; lumbar radiculopathy; and tendinosis and degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 13. At step four, the ALJ found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand and/or walk up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, and sit up to six hours in an eight-hour workday, with no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no more than occasional climbing ramps or stairs; no more than occasional bending, stooping, kneeling, or crawling; and no exposure to vibration or hazards (i.e. machinery, heights). AR 13. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a software engineer and a user support analyst. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's residual functional capability. AR 18. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from January 1, 2013, through the date of the decision, on April 17, 2015. AR 20.

         DISCUSSION

         1. Standard of Review

         Administrative decisions in social security disability benefits cases are reviewed under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Akopyan v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002). Section 405(g) states: “Any 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 transcripts 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 Ninth Circuit reviews a decision affirming, modifying, or reversing a decision of the Commissioner de novo. See Batson v. Commissioner, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).

         The Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Commissioner's findings may be set aside if they are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence. See Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). 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); see also Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, the court “must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion.” Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); see also Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996).

         Under the substantial evidence test, findings must be upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. When the evidence will support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the Commissioner's interpretation. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). Consequently, the issue before the 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. Mere cursory findings of fact without explicit statements as to what portions of the evidence were accepted or rejected are not sufficient. Lewin v. Schweiker, 654 F.2d 631, 634 (9th Cir. 1981). 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.” Id.

         2. Disability Evaluation Process

         The individual seeking disability benefits has 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). More specifically, the individual must provide “specific medical evidence” in support of her claim for disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1514. If the individual establishes an inability to perform her prior ...


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