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Carrara v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

August 2, 2019

LISA M. CARRARA, 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 Lisa M. Carrara'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. 14), filed December 19, 2018, the Commissioner's response and cross-motion to affirm (ECF Nos. 15, 16), filed January 18, 2019. Plaintiff did not file a reply.

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Procedural History

         On March 19, 2014 Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of April 1, 2010. AR[1]21, 92, 249-65. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, and on reconsideration. AR 171-75, 183-94. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on September 12, 2016. AR 47-91. On February 28, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 18-39. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 7-12. Plaintiff, on June 21, 2018, commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). (See Complaint (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 22-23. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the amended alleged onset date of April 1, 2010. AR 23. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had medically determinable “severe” impairments of disorder of the shoulders bilaterally; disorder of the cervical spine; disorder of the right elbow; anxiety; and depression. 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 26. At step four, the ALJ found that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work but with the following restrictions: she is limited to lifting or carrying no more than 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; she is capable of standing and/or walking for six hours in an eight-hour workday; she is capable of sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday; she can perform all postural activities frequently except that she can only occasionally balance, crawl, and climb ladders, ropes, or scaffold; she can only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally; she is limited to frequent but not continuous reaching in all other planes with her right upper extremity; she is otherwise unlimited with regard to the use of her upper extremities; she must avoid concentrated exposure to excessive noise such as that found in factory or construction sites, or in environments where there are large crowds; she must avoid concentrated exposure to excessive vibration, hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, and operational control of moving machinery; and finally, she is limited to simple tasks typical of unskilled occupations. AR 29. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 37. Claimant was born on April 17, 1970, and was 39 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. Id. The claimant 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 because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills. Id. 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 can perform. Id. Accordingly, the claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 1, 2010 through the date of this decision. AR 38. The claimant's substance abuse disorder is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. AR 39.


         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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