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Hernandez-Aguirre v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 6, 2019

BLANCA M. HERNANDEZ-AGUIRRE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          RICHARD F. BOULWARE, II UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Blanca M. Hernandez-Aguirre's Motion for Remand, ECF No. 18, and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's Cross-Motion to Affirm, ECF No. 21.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ's opinion is not supported by substantial evidence and contains legal error that is not harmless. Therefore, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and remands to Defendant for an award of benefits.

         II. BACKGROUND

         On November 26, 2013, Plaintiff completed an application for disability insurance benefits alleging disability since September 14, 2013. AR 27. Plaintiff was denied initially on June 2, 2014 and upon administrative reconsideration on May 1, 2015. AR 27. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and appeared on August 25, 2016 with the assistance of a Spanish language interpreter. AR 27, AR 50-57. In an opinion dated October 18, 2016, ALJ Cynthia R. Hoover found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 27-43. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 27, 2017, rendering the ALJ's decision final. AR 1-6.

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining Social Security disability claims set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, that ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of September 14, 2013. AR 28. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following impairments which were severe in combination: mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (“HIV”). AR 28-29. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. AR 29-32.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c). He found that Plaintiff can lift and carry no more than twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally; she can sit for six hours, cumulatively, in an eight-hour workday; she can stand and/or walk for six hours, cumulatively, in an eight-hour workday; and she is relegated to the performance of simple, repetitive tasks characteristic of the unskilled occupational base. AR 32-42. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a house cleaner. AR 42-43.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's disability determinations and authorizes district courts to enter “a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” In undertaking that review, an ALJ's “disability determination should be upheld unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). “Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)) (quotation marks omitted).

         “If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing a decision, [a reviewing court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035. Nevertheless, the Court may not simply affirm by selecting a subset of the evidence supporting the ALJ's conclusion, nor can the Court affirm on a ground on which the ALJ did not rely. Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009-10. Rather, the Court must “review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion, ” to determine whether that conclusion is supported by substantial evidence. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). “The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities.” Id.

         The Social Security Act has established a five-step sequential evaluation procedure for determining Social Security disability claims. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010. “The burden of proof is on the claimant at steps one through four, but shifts to the Commissioner at step five.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1011. Here, the ALJ resolved Plaintiff's claim at step four.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. New ...


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