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Ronquillo v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

June 6, 2019

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


          William G. Cobb, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Report and Recommendation is made to the Honorable Miranda M. Du, United States District Judge. The action was referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and the Local Rules of Practice, LR 1B 1-4.

         Before the court is Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment seeking reversal of the final decision of the Commissioner and the payment of benefits. (ECF No. 13.) The Commissioner filed a Cross-Motion to Affirm and Opposition to Plaintiff's motion. (ECF Nos. 16, 17.)

         After a thorough review, it is recommended that Plaintiff's motion be granted; the Commissioner's cross-motion to affirm be denied; and, that this matter be remanded for further administrative proceedings consistent with this Report and Recommendation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 17, 2014, Plaintiff completed an application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability beginning June 12, 2014. (Administrative Record (AR) 169-175.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (AR 132-141.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). (AR 143-44.) ALJ John Heyer held a hearing on March 27, 2017, in San Francisco, California. (AR 67-85.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified on her own behalf at the hearing. Testimony was also taken from a vocational expert (VE). On April 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 10-21.) Plaintiff requested review, and the Appeals Council denied the request, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6, 168.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, as she now resides in Nevada. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ impermissibly rejected the opinions of her treating physician, Yvette Bordelon, M.D., Ph.D.

         II. STANDARDS

         A. Disability Process

         After a claimant files an application for disability benefits, a disability examiner at the state Disability Determination agency, working with a doctor(s), makes the initial decision on the claimant's application. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(1); 416.1400(a)(1). If the agency denies the claim initially, the claimant may request reconsideration of the denial, and the case is sent to a different disability examiner for a new decision. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(2), 416.1400(a)(2). If the agency denies the claim on reconsideration, the claimant may request a hearing and the case is sent to an ALJ who works for the Social Security Administration. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(3), 416.1400(a)(3). The ALJ issues a written decision after the hearing. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(3). If the ALJ denies the claim, the claimant may request review by the Appeals Council. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(4), 416.1400(a)(4). If the Appeals Council determines there is merit to the claim, it generally remands the case to the ALJ for a new hearing. If the Appeals Council denies review, the claimant can file an action in the United States District Court. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.900(a)(5), 416.1400(a)(5).

         B. Five-Step Evaluation of Disability

         Under the Social Security Act, "disability" is the inability to engage "in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled if his or her physical or mental impairment(s) are so severe as to preclude the claimant from doing not only his or her previous work but also, any other work which exists in the national economy, considering his age, education and work experience. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520 and § 416.920; see also Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987). In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.152(a)(4)(i), (b); § 416.920(a)(4)(i); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to step two.

         The second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments are "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c) and § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. An impairment is severe if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. If the claimant has an impairment(s) that is severe, the Commissioner proceeds to step three.

         In the third step, the Commissioner looks at a number of specific impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Listed Impairments) and determines whether the claimant's impairment(s) meets or is the equivalent of one of the Listed Impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d) and § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). The Commissioner presumes the Listed Impairments are severe enough to preclude any gainful activity, regardless of age, education or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a), § 416.925(a). If the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the Listed Impairments, and is of sufficient duration, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d), § 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d). If the claimant's impairment is severe, but does not meet or equal one of the Listed Impairments, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f) and § 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f). Past relevant work is that which a claimant performed in the last 15 years, which lasted long enough for him or her to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565(a) and § 416.920(a).

         In making this determination, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and the physical and mental demands of the work previously performed. See id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v), § 416.920(a)(4)(v); see also Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). RFC is what the claimant can still do despite his or her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545 and § 416.945. In determining the RFC, the Commissioner must assess all evidence, including the claimant's and others' descriptions of the limitation(s), and medical reports, to determine what capacity the claimant has for work despite his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3) and 416.945(a)(3).

         A claimant can return to previous work if he or she can perform the "actual functional demands and job duties of a particular pat relevant job" or "[t]he functional demands and job duties of the [past] occupation as generally required by employers throughout the national economy." Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 845 (9th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         If the claimant can still do past relevant work, then he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f) and § 416.920(f); see also Berry, 62 F.3d at 131.

         If, however, the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish at step five that the claimant can perform other work available in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); see also Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42, 144. This means "work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country." Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 740 F.3d 519, 528 (9th Cir. 2014). If the claimant cannot do the work he or she did in the past, the Commissioner must consider the claimant's RFC, age, education, and past work experience to determine whether the claimant can do other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42. The Commissioner may meet this burden either through the testimony of a VE or by reference to the Grids. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999).

         If at step five the Commissioner establishes that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy, then he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566(b), § 416.966(b). Conversely, if the Commissioner determines the claimant unable to adjust to any other work, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g), § 416.920(g); see also Lockwood, 616 F.3d at 1071; Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009).

         C. Judicial Review & Substantial Evidence

         The court must affirm the ALJ's determination if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 522 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "Substantial evidence is '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." Id. at 523-24 (quoting Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012)).

         To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must look at the record as a whole, considering both evidence that supports and undermines the ALJ's decision. Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 524 (citing Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001)). The court "'may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)). "'The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.'" Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, 'the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment' for that of the Commissioner." Gutierrez, 740 F.3d at 524 (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1996)). That being said, "a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply proper legal standards." Id. (citing Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009); Benton v. Barnhart, 331 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2003)). In addition, the court will "review only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010 (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).


         A. ALJ's Findings in this Case

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 12, 2014. (AR 15.)

         At step two, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: status post implantation of deep brain stimulator to control tremors. (AR 15.)

         At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the Listed Impairments. (AR 15.)

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff as having the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except she could lift 20 pounds; sit, stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour day; and, use the hands on an occasional basis for work-related activities. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had no significant work-related mental health limitations. (AR 15-20.)

         The ALJ then concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (AR 20.)

         At step five, the ALJ determined, based on VE testimony, that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including: call out operator (Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) number 237.367-014); and surveillance system monitor (DOT number 379.367-010). (AR 21.) As a result, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled from June 12, 2014, through the date of the decision-April 26, 2017. (AR 21.)

         B. ...

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