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Ceasario v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

July 30, 2019

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



         This matter was referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a report of findings and recommendations under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B)-(C) and Local Rule IB 1-4. The case involves review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Sam Ceasario's (“Plaintiff”) application for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The court has reviewed Plaintiff's motion to remand (ECF No. 18), filed October 3, 2018, and the Commissioner's response and cross-motion to affirm (ECF No. 25), filed January 17, 2019. Plaintiff did not file a reply.

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Procedural History

         On August 28, 2012, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of May 9, 2006. AR[1]348, 350-357. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, and on reconsideration. AR 213-223, 224. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 17, 2017. AR 53-89.[1] On August 14, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 22-52. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 2-7. Plaintiff, on February 22, 2018, commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). (See ECF Nos. 1, 4.)

         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 26-27. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the amended alleged onset date of September 17, 2011. AR 27. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable “severe” impairments: mild degenerative joint disease of the right knee, status post left clavicle fracture, depressive disorder not otherwise specified, degenerative changes to the lumbosacral spine, and morbid obesity as a secondary factor considered under SSR 02-1p. 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. AR 29. At step four, the ALJ found that the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform lifting up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, except he would be further limited to: standing and walking up to 4 hours of an 8 hour day; sitting up to 6 hours of an 8 hour day; with no direct overhead reaching bilaterally; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; frequent balancing; occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing stairs or ramps; and, occasional exposure to extremes of cold, vibration and hazards (i.e. heights and dangerous moving machinery). As a result of mental impairment, he would further be limited to: understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions, using simple judgment, making simple work-related decisions, in a work setting with no more than occasional changes in routine, to perform simple work tasks with no more than brief and superficial interactions with the public, and occasional interaction with co-workers and supervisors. AR 30.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work as a taxicab driver because it exceeds his RFC. AR 43. The claimant was born on March 7, 1968 and was 43 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. Id. The claimant has a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability, because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not he has transferable job skills. Id. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he is able to perform, according to the vocational expert. AR 44. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from the amended alleged onset date of September 17, 2011, through the date of the decision. AR 45.


         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. Comm'r, 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 ...

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