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Slaughter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 30, 2018

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

         (Mot. to Remand - ECF No. 19).

         (Cross-Mot. Summ. J. - ECF No. 22)



         This 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.[1]


         On May 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.[2] 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.

         An 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.

         On 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).


         I. Applicable Law

         A. Judicial Review of Disability Determination

         District 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.

         The 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)).

         Under 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)).

         It is 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).

         B. Disability Evaluation Process

         A 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 process).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         An ALJ 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).

         Here, 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 basis.”

         The 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 2.

         A. Step One

         The 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 ...

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