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Childers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 12, 2019

MATTHEW CHILDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION OF U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE [1]

         This case involves the judicial review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Childers' application for social security income benefits pursuant to titles XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383. Currently pending before the Court is Childers' motion for remand. (ECF No. 12.) In this motion, Childers seeks the reversal of the administrative decision and remand for an award of benefits. (Id.) The Commissioner filed a response to Childers' motion and a cross-motion to affirm. (ECF Nos. 19, 20.) Childers filed a reply (ECF Nos. 21, 22) reiterating the arguments in his motion for remand. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court recommends that Childers' motion for remand, (ECF No. 12), be granted, and the Commissioner's cross-motion to affirm, (ECF Nos. 19, 20), be denied.

         I. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A. Judicial Standard of Review

         This Court's review of administrative decisions in social security disability benefits cases is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Akopyan v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 852, 854 (9th Cir. 2002). Section 405(g) provides that “[a]ny 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 transcript 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 Court must affirm an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) determination if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Stout v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive”). “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 59 S.Ct. 206, 83 L.Ed. 126 (1938)); see also Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the Court must look at the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and undermines the ALJ's decision. Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 749 (9th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). 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). “However, if evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the decision of the ALJ must be upheld.” Shalala, 50 F.3d at 749 (citation omitted). The ALJ alone is responsible for determining credibility and for resolving ambiguities. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999).

         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 substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision. 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, so that a reviewing court may know the basis for the decision. See Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990).

         B. Standards Applicable to Disability Evaluation Process

         The individual seeking disability benefits bears 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 his claim for disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1514. If the individual establishes an inability to perform his 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. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998).

         The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 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 individual is currently engaging in SGA, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is not engaging in SGA, then the analysis proceeds to the second step.

         The second step addresses whether the individual has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that significantly limits him from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when medical and other evidence establish 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921; Social Security Rulings (“SSRs”) 85-28 and 96-3p.1 If the individual does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then the analysis proceeds to the third step.

         The third step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926. If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria of a listing and meets the duration requirement (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909), then a finding of disabled is made. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(h), 416.920(h). If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal the criteria of a listing or meet the duration requirement, then the analysis proceeds to the next step.

         Prior to considering step four, the ALJ must first determine the individual's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The RFC is a function-by-function assessment of the individual's ability to do physical and mental work-related activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from impairments. SSR 96-8p. In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of the symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which the symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529 and 416.929; SSRs 96-4p, 96-7p. To the extent that objective medical evidence does not substantiate statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally-limiting effects of pain or other symptoms, the ALJ must make a finding on the credibility of the individual's statements based on a consideration of the entire case record. The ALJ must also consider opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527 and 416.927 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p.

         After making the RFC determination, the ALJ must then turn to step four in order to determine whether the individual has the RFC to perform her past relevant work (“PRW”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). PRW means work performed either as the individual actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy within the last 15 years or 15 years prior to the date that disability must be established. In addition, the work must have lasted long enough for the individual to learn the job and performed at SGA. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b), 404.1565, 416.960(b), 416.965. If the individual has the RFC to perform his past work, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is unable to perform any PRW or does not have any PRW, then the analysis proceeds to the fifth and last step.

         The fifth and final step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is able to do any other work considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If he is able to do other work, then a finding of not disabled is made. Although the individual generally continues to bear the burden of proving disability at this step, a limited evidentiary burden shifts to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the individual can do. Lockwood v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010).

         II. CASE BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On February 25, 2016, Childers protectively filed for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging a disability onset date of June 4, 1997. (Administrative Record (“AR”) 173.)[2] The Social Security Administration initially denied Childers' application on May 3, 2016, and upon reconsideration on July 26, 2016. (AR 60-74, 76-93.) Childers subsequently requested an administrative hearing. (AR 111.)

         On June 14, 2017, Childers and his attorney appeared at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 15.) Scott K. Nielson Jr., a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared at the hearing. (Id.) The ALJ issued a written decision on November 7, 2017, finding that Childers was not disabled because he could perform work existing in significant numbers. (AR 15-26.) Childers appealed, and the Appeals Council denied review on March 1, 2018. (Id. at 1-6.) Accordingly, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Childers filed a complaint for judicial review on April 24, 2018. (ECF No. 1.)

         B. ALJ's Decision

         In the written decision, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. (AR 15-36.) Ultimately, the ALJ disagreed that Childers has been disabled from February 25, 2016, through the present date. (Id. at 25.) The ALJ held that, based on Childers' RFC, his age, education and work experience, he was able to perform past work and there were jobs in the national economy that he could perform. (Id. at 24-25.)

         In making this determination, the ALJ started at step one. Here, the ALJ found that Childers had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of February 25, 2016, through present. (Id. at 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Childers had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate with anxious distress with obsessive-compulsive, posttraumatic and social phobic features with roots in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) and lumbar degenerative disc disease per 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Childers did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that either met or medically equaled the severity of those impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appx. 1; 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926. (Id. at 17-19.) Next, the ALJ then determined Childers' RFC. The ALJ determined that Childers had an RFC to perform less than the full range of light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), which required Childers avoid all contact with the general public and only occasional exposure to coworkers. (Id. at 19.) According to the ALJ's RFC determination, Childers was capable of “perform[ing] simple, repetitive tasks and make simple work related decision[s].” (Id.) However, he should “never climb stairs, ramps, ladders, or scaffolds; [or] [sic] balance, ” and he can only “occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.” (Id.) Additionally, he “must avoid all unprotected heights.” (Id.)

         Based on this RFC determination, the ALJ determined Childers was capable of performing light work. (Id. at 25.) In addition, the ALJ found Childers not disabled and denied his application for a period of ...


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