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James v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

October 29, 2019

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



         This case involves review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Patricia L. James' (Plaintiff's) application for disability insurance benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The court reviewed Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF No. 15), filed September 4, 2018, and Defendant's Cross Motion to Affirm and Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Reversal and/or Remand (ECF Nos. 16, 17), filed October 5, 2018. Plaintiff replied on October 22, 2018. (ECF No. 18.) The parties consented to adjudication by a magistrate judge (ECF No. 14), and this matter was referred to the undersigned on May 2, 2019. (ECF No. 21.)

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On March 4, 2015, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of October 27, 2014. AR[1] 404-415. Plaintiff subsequently amended her onset date to August 15, 2015. AR 130, 161. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration. AR 310-12, 313-15, 320-24, 325-29. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on September 27, 2017. AR 156-97. On October 18, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 127-44. On October 30, 2017, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. AR 403. The Appeals Council denied this request on March 13, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 1-7. On May 16, 2018, Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (See ECF No. 1.)

         B. The ALJ Decision

         The ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920.

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since August 15, 2015. AR 132.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cervicalgia, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, headaches, and mild right carpal tunnel syndrome. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (the listings). AR 134.

         Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), consisting of lifting or carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for up to six hours in an eight-hour work day; and sitting for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. The ALJ further found Plaintiff could frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps or stairs, but she could never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. Due to bilateral upper extremity problems, Plaintiff was limited to frequent reaching with her right upper extremity and occasional overhead reaching with her bilateral upper extremities. The Plaintiff is also not able to perform work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery. AR 134.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a cashier, customer service representative, housekeeper, sales attendant, and worker in general hardware sales. AR 137. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled from August 15, 2015 through the date of his decision. Id.


         A. 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.

42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The court may enter “upon the pleadings and transcript 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. Commissioner, 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); see Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006). However, the Commissioner's findings may be set aside if they are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence. See Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1004 (9th Cir. 2005); 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 insufficient. 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. (citing Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d 309, 312 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 931 (1975).).

         B. Disability ...

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