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Palmer v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

May 29, 2018

AUDREY R. PALMER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          C.W. HOFFMAN, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This case involves review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Audrey Palmer's (“Plaintiff”) application for supplemental security income. The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's motion to remand (ECF No. 17), filed February 27, 2017, the Commissioner's cross-motion to affirm (ECF No. 20), filed March 30, 2017, and Plaintiff's Reply (ECF No. 21), filed April 10, 2017.

         A. BACKGROUND

         1.Procedural History

         On January 15, 2013, Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income alleging an onset date of December 5, 2012. AR 160-167.[2] Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on October 29, 2013, AR 101-105, and on reconsideration on March 17, 2014. AR 113-117. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on February 17, 2015. AR 42-66. On April 24, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, indicating that Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 23-36. On August 16, 2016, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-7. Plaintiff, on October 3, 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 23-25. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the application date of December 5, 2012. AR 25. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had medically determinable “severe” impairments: hepatitis C; obesity with chronic low back pain; history of gout; history of asthma. Also, the claimant has the following severe mental impairments: major depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. 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. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except: inability to perform more than occasional postural movements; avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants and hazards in the work environment; and has a moderate limitation for understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions, but can perform simple repetitive tasks that involve no more than occasional routine interactions with the public or coworkers. AR 27. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff is not capable of performing past relevant work. AR 34. The ALJ noted that the claimant was born on March 11, 1963 and was 49 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed. AR 35. The claimant subsequently changed age category to closely approaching advanced age. Id. She noted that claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. The ALJ noted that transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework support a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills. Id. At step five, the ALJ determined that considering claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. AR 35. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability since December 5, 2012, the date of the application. AR 36.

         B. 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 work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the individual can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. Batson, 157 F.3d at 721.

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If at any step the ALJ determines that he can make a finding of disability or nondisability, a determination will be made and no further evaluation is required. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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. Id. § 404.1572(a)-(b). If the individual is engaged in SGA, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is not engaged in SGA, then the analysis proceeds to the step two.

         Step two addresses whether the individual has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that significantly limits her from performing basic work activities. Id. § 404.1520(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when medical and other evidence establishes only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on the individual's ability to work. Id. § 404.1521; see also Social Security Rulings (“SSRs”) 85-28, 96-3p, and 96-4p.[3] If the individual does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of ...


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