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De Ragan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

December 27, 2019

TANIA V. REAL DE RAGAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL[*], Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          BRENDA WEKSLER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter was referred to the undersigned magistrate judge on consent under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 19.) The case involves review of an administrative action by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Tania V. Real De Ragan's (“Plaintiff) application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The court has reviewed Plaintiffs motion for reversal or remand (ECF No. 12), filed April 5, 2017, and the Commissioner's response and cross-motion to affirm (ECF No. 18), filed July 4, 2017. Plaintiff did not file a reply.

         I. BACKGROUND

         1. Procedural History

         On September 12, 2011, Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of July 21, 2009. AR[1] 159-165. Plaintiffs claim was denied initially on January 23, 2012, and on reconsideration on December 30, 2013. AR 97-101; 109-111. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 2, 2015. AR 34-64. On May 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 13-27. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. AR 1-6. Plaintiff, on October 21, 2016, commenced this action for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). (See Compl. (ECF No. 1).)

         II. DISCUSSION

         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) provides: “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. 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); 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 work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the individual can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

         The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in determining whether an individual is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If at any step the ALJ determines that he can make a finding of disability or non-disability, a determination will be made, and no further evaluation is required. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). Step one requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful; it involves doing significant physical or mental activities usually for pay or profit. Id. § 404.1572(a)-(b). If the individual is engaged in SGA, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is not engaged in SGA, then the analysis proceeds to the step two.

         Step two addresses whether the individual has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that significantly limits her from performing basic work activities. Id. § 404.1520(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe when medical and other evidence establishes only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on the individual's ability to work. Id. § 404.1521; see also Social Security Rulings (“SSRs”) 85-28, 96-3p, and 96-4p.[2] If the individual does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual has a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, then the analysis proceeds to step three.

         Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual's impairments or combination of impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526. If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal the criteria of a listing and the duration requirement (20 C.F.R. § 404.1509), then a finding of disabled is made. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(h). If the individual's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal the criteria of a listing or meet the duration requirement, then the analysis proceeds to step four.

         But before moving to step four, the ALJ must first determine the individual's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which is a function-by-function assessment of the individual's ability to do physical and mental work-related activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); see also SSR 96-8p. In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all the relevant evidence, such as all symptoms and the extent to which the symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; see also SSRs 96-4p and 96-7p. To the extent that statements about the intensity, persistence, or functionally limiting effects of pain or other symptoms are not substantiated by objective medical evidence, the ALJ must make a finding on the credibility of the individual's statements based on a consideration of the entire case record. The ALJ must also consider opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p, and 06-3p.

         Step four requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual has the RFC to perform her past relevant work (“PRW”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). PRW means work performed either as the individual actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the national economy within the last 15 years or 15 years before the date that disability must be established. In addition, the work must have lasted long enough for the individual to learn the job and performed a SGA. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(b) and 404.1565. If the individual has the RFC to perform her past work, then a finding of not disabled is made. If the individual is unable to perform any PRW or does not have any PRW, then the analysis proceeds to step five.

         The fifth and final step requires the ALJ to determine whether the individual is able to do any other work considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If she is able to do other work, then a finding of not disabled is made. Although the individual generally continues to have the burden of proving disability at this step, a limited burden of going forward with the evidence shifts to the Commissioner. The Commissioner is responsible for providing evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the economy that the individual can do. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42.

         Here, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. AR 15-27. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of July 21, 2009. AR 15. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had medically determinable “severe” impairments of obesity; small tendon left shoulder tear, status post arthroscopy left shoulder times two; status post right carpal tunnel release, trigger finger release, and cubital tunnel release; degenerative joint disease of the right knee; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine and lumbar spine; and major depressive disorder. Id. The ALJ found Plaintiff's diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and migraine headache to be “non-severe.” AR 15-16. At step three, the ALJ found 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 16. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to occasionally lift and/or carry 20 ...


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