United States District Court, D. Nevada
LAWRENCE R. SLAUGHTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
to Remand - ECF No. 19).
Summ. J. - ECF No. 22)
A. LEEN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter involves Plaintiff Lawrence R. Slaughter's appeal
and request for judicial review of the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security, Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's final
decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits
under Title II of the Social Security Act (the
“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, and
supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, 42
U.S.C. §§ 1381-83.
26, 2011, Plaintiff Lawrence R. Slaughter
(“Slaughter”) protectively filed applications for
a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, alleging
disability beginning on September 15, 2009. AR
173-84. He was 57 years old when he applied. AR
32, 51. Mr. Slaughter's work history included jobs in
telemarketing from 1997 to 1999 and as a patient transporter
in a hospital from 2000 to 2009. AR 36. In his application,
Slaughter claimed he was unable to work because of:
Paget's disease, diabetes, and carpal tunnel syndrome. AR
201. The Social Security Administration (the
“Agency”) denied his application initially and on
reconsideration. AR 120-24.
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing
on June 26, 2013, where Mr. Slaughter appeared with counsel.
AR 48-69. During the hearing, counsel asserted that
Slaughter's theory of the case was that he was unable to
perform the full range of sedentary work based on his
diabetes and pain in his back, hips, and other joints. AR
54-55. In a decision dated January 21, 2014, the ALJ found
that Slaughter was not disabled. AR 29-45. Mr. Slaughter
requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals
Council, but the ALJ's decision became final when the
Appeals Council denied review on January 15, 2015. AR 1-7.
March 4, 2015, Slaughter timely filed his Complaint (ECF No.
1) in federal court, seeking judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). The Commissioner filed her Answer (ECF No. 15) on
December 15, 2015. Slaughter filed a Motion to Remand (ECF
No. 19), and the Commissioner filed a Cross-Motion for
Summary Judgment and Response (ECF Nos. 22, 23). The court
has considered the Motion, the Cross-Motion and Response, and
Mr. Slaughter's Reply (ECF No. 24).
Judicial Review of Disability Determination
courts review administrative decisions in social security
benefits cases under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Akopyan v.
Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002). The statute
provides that after the Commissioner has held a hearing and
rendered a final decision, a disability claimant may seek
review of that decision by filing a civil lawsuit in a
federal district court in the judicial district where the
disability claimant lives. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
statute also provides that the district 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.
Commissioner's findings of fact are conclusive if
supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir. 2005).
But the Commissioner's findings may be set aside if they
are based on legal error or not supported by substantial
evidence. 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 “ ‘such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion'.” Shaibi v. Berryhill, 883
F.3d 1102, 1106 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012));
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.
1995) (stating that substantial evidence is “more than
a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance”). In
determining whether the Commissioner's findings are
supported by substantial evidence, a court “must
consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm
simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting
evidence'.” Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d
1154, 1160 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Hill v. Astrue,
698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012)).
the substantial evidence test, a court must uphold the
Commissioner's findings if they are supported by
inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Batson v.
Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th
Cir. 2003). When the evidence will support more than one
rational interpretation, a court must defer to the
Commissioner's interpretation. Shaibi, 883 F.3d
at 1108 (quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676,
679 (9th Cir. 2005)). Consequently, the issue before a court
is not whether the Commissioner could reasonably have reached
a different conclusion, but whether the final decision is
supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error.
Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Gutierrez
v. Colvin, 844 F.3d 804, 807 (9th Cir. 2016)).
incumbent upon an ALJ to make specific findings so that a
court does not speculate as to the basis of the findings when
determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported
by substantial evidence. See Burrell v. Colvin, 775
F.3d 1133, 1140 (9th Cir. 2014). Mere cursory findings of
fact without explicit statements about what portions of the
evidence were accepted or rejected are not sufficient.
Lewin v. Schweiker, 654 F.2d 631, 634 (9th Cir.
1981). An ALJ's findings should be comprehensive,
analytical, and include a statement explaining the
“factual foundations on which the ultimate factual
conclusions are based.” Id.; see also
Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir.
1984) (an ALJ need not discuss all the evidence in the
record, but must explain why significant probative evidence
has been rejected).
Disability Evaluation Process
claimant has the initial burden of proving disability.
Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir.
1995). To meet this burden, a claimant must demonstrate an
“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). A claimant must provide specific
medical evidence to support his or her claim of disability.
Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir.
1998). If a claimant establishes an inability to perform his
or her prior work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to
show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful
work that exists in the national economy. See
Molina, 674 F.3d at 1110 (noting that a claimant bears
the burden of proof until the final step in the evaluation
The ALJ's Decision
follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in
determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
If at any step an ALJ makes a finding of disability or
non-disability, no further evaluation is required. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); Barnhart v.
Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).
the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process
and issued an unfavorable decision on January 21, 2014 (the
“Decision”). AR 29-45. Mr. Slaughter does not
challenge the ALJ's findings at steps one through three,
but asserts legal error at step four. More specifically, he
argues that (1) the ALJ's RFC assessment failed to
properly account for his obesity, and (2) the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate his subjective complaints. Slaughter claims
he is capable of no more than sedentary exertion. Although he
acknowledges that his past relevant work as a telemarketer
was sedentary, he “maintains that due to the impact of
his pain, he would not be able to perform his past relevant
work or any other work on a full-time, consistent
parties stipulate that the ALJ fairly and accurately
summarized the evidence and testimony of record in the
Decision, except as specifically addressed in their
arguments. See Pl.'s Mot. (ECF No. 19) at 5;
Comm'r's Cross-Mot. & Resp. (ECF Nos. 22, 23) at
first step of the disability evaluation requires an ALJ to
determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in
substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(b), 416.920(b). SGA is defined as work activity that
is both substantial and gainful; it involves doing
significant physical or mental activities, usually for pay or
profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a)-(b),
416.972(a)-(b). If the claimant is currently engaging in
substantial gainful activity, then a finding of ...