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Beyrent v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

August 2, 2019

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 April Beyrent's (“Plaintiff”) application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The court has reviewed Plaintiff's motion for reversal or to remand (ECF No. 22), filed April 3, 2018, and the Commissioner's response and cross-motion to affirm (ECF Nos. 26, 25), filed June 4, 2018, and Plaintiff's reply (ECF No. 27), filed June 25, 2018.

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Procedural History

         On March 17, 2014, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of August 20, 2013. AR[1] 138-146. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, and on reconsideration. AR 96-99. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on November 25, 2015. AR 50-82. On March 9, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 29-45. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 4-11. Plaintiff, on September 19, 2017, commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). (See Compl. (ECF No. 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 32-34. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of August 20, 2013 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014. AR 34. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had medically determinable “severe” impairments of degenerative disc disease. 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 34-35. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) except that she cannot climb ladders or scaffolds and can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb stairs. She needs to alternate sitting and standing approximately every 30 minutes. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 39. Plaintiff was born on August 18, 1973 and was 41 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44 on the date last insured. Id. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability. Id. Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and the residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from August 20, 2013, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured. AR 40.


         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 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 ...

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