Maria P. Castanon Arteaga v. Andrew Saul

Filing 21

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND by Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Chooljian. The decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED for further administrative action consistent with this Opinion. (see document for further details) (hr)

Download PDF
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 MARIA P. C. A.,1 Plaintiff, 12 v. 13 14 15 Case No. 2:20-cv-04888-JC MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF REMAND ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant. 16 17 I. 18 SUMMARY On June 1, 2020, plaintiff filed a Complaint seeking review of the 19 Commissioner of Social Security’s denial of her application for benefits. The 20 parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate 21 Judge. 22 This matter is before the Court on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment 23 (“Plaintiff’s Motion”) and defendant’s memorandum in opposition (“Defendant’s 24 Opposition”). The Court has taken the parties’ arguments under submission 25 26 27 28 1 Plaintiff’s name is partially redacted to protect her privacy in compliance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2(c)(2)(B) and the recommendation of the Committee on Court Administration and Case Management of the Judicial Conference of the United States. 1 without oral argument. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78; L.R. 7-15; Case Management Order 2 ¶ 5. 3 Based on the record as a whole and the applicable law, the decision of the 4 Commissioner is REVERSED AND REMANDED for further proceedings 5 consistent with this Memorandum Opinion and Order of Remand. 6 II. BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE 7 DECISION 8 On September 15, 2016, plaintiff filed an application for Disability 9 Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning on June 1, 2016, due to diabetes, 10 high blood pressure, arthritis, asthma, a thyroid condition, and problems with her 11 left foot. (See Administrative Record (“AR”) 185-86, 205). An Administrative 12 Law Judge (“ALJ”) subsequently examined the medical record and heard 13 testimony from plaintiff (who was represented by counsel) and a vocational expert 14 on April 2, 2019. (AR 48-65). On April 24, 2019, the ALJ determined that 15 plaintiff has not been disabled since June 2, 2016, the alleged onset date. (AR 2116 30). Specifically, the ALJ found: (1) plaintiff has the following severe 17 impairments: left foot/ankle osteoarthritis with open reduction internal fixation of 18 medial malleolus and heel spur; hypothyroidism; asthma; bilateral knee strains; 19 lumbar strain; right ankle arthrosis/degenerative joint disease with underlying 20 diabetic neuropathy; congenitally absent kidney; right breast mass; headache; 21 hypertension; diabetes mellitus with diabetic dermatitis; and obesity (AR 23); 22 (2) plaintiff’s impairments, considered individually or in combination, do not meet 23 or medically equal a listed impairment (AR 24); (3) plaintiff retains the residual 24 functional capacity2 to perform a reduced range of medium work3 (20 C.F.R. 25 26 27 28 2 Residual functional capacity is what a claimant can still do despite existing exertional and nonexertional limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). 3 Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff (I) can lift, carry, push, or pull fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; (ii) can sit, stand, and walk for about six hours (continued...) 2 1 §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b)) (AR 24-25); (4) plaintiff is capable of performing her 2 past relevant work as a jewelry assembler (AR 29); and (5) plaintiff’s statements 3 regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of subjective symptoms 4 were inconsistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record (AR 5 25). 6 On April 1, 2020, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s application for 7 review of the ALJ’s decision. (AR 1-3). 8 III. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS 9 A. 10 Administrative Evaluation of Disability Claims To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show that she is unable “to 11 engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable 12 physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which 13 has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 14 months.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 15 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)) (internal quotation marks omitted), superseded by 16 regulation on other grounds; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905. To be considered 17 disabled, a claimant must have an impairment of such severity that she is incapable 18 of performing work the claimant previously performed (“past relevant work”) as 19 well as any other “work which exists in the national economy.” Tackett v. Apfel, 20 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)). 21 To assess whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required to use the five- 22 step sequential evaluation process set forth in Social Security regulations. See 23 Stout v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006) 24 (describing five-step sequential evaluation process) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 25 26 27 28 3 (...continued) out of an eight hour workday; (iii) cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but can perform all other postural activities on a frequent basis; and (iv) must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, and respiratory irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, and gases. (AR 24-25). 3 1 416.920). The claimant has the burden of proof at steps one through four – i.e., 2 determination of whether the claimant was engaging in substantial gainful activity 3 (step 1), has a sufficiently severe impairment (step 2), has an impairment or 4 combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the conditions 5 listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listings”) (step 3), and 6 retains the residual functional capacity to perform past relevant work (step 4). 7 Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). The 8 Commissioner has the burden of proof at step five – i.e., establishing that the 9 claimant could perform other work in the national economy. Id. 10 B. 11 A federal court may set aside a denial of benefits only when the Federal Court Review of Social Security Disability Decisions 12 Commissioner’s “final decision” was “based on legal error or not supported by 13 substantial evidence in the record.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 14 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The standard 15 of review in disability cases is “highly deferential.” Rounds v. Comm’r of Soc. 16 Sec. Admin., 807 F.3d 996, 1002 (9th Cir. 2015) (citation and quotation marks 17 omitted). Thus, an ALJ’s decision must be upheld if the evidence could reasonably 18 support either affirming or reversing the decision. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674-75 19 (citations omitted). Even when an ALJ’s decision contains error, it must be 20 affirmed if the error was harmless. See Treichler v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 21 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th Cir. 2014) (ALJ error harmless if (1) inconsequential to 22 the ultimate nondisability determination; or (2) ALJ’s path may reasonably be 23 discerned despite the error) (citation and quotation marks omitted). 24 Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might 25 accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 674 (defining 26 “substantial evidence” as “more than a mere scintilla, but less than a 27 preponderance”) (citation and quotation marks omitted). When determining 28 whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ’s finding, a court “must consider the 4 1 entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence 2 that detracts from the Commissioner’s conclusion[.]” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 3 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). 4 Federal courts review only the reasoning the ALJ provided, and may not 5 affirm the ALJ’s decision “on a ground upon which [the ALJ] did not rely.” 6 Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675 (citations omitted). Hence, while an ALJ’s decision need 7 not be drafted with “ideal clarity,” it must, at a minimum, set forth the ALJ’s 8 reasoning “in a way that allows for meaningful review.” Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 9 806 F.3d 487, 492 (9th Cir. 2015) (citing Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099). 10 A reviewing court may not conclude that an error was harmless based on 11 independent findings gleaned from the administrative record. Brown-Hunter, 806 12 F.3d at 492 (citations omitted). When a reviewing court cannot confidently 13 conclude that an error was harmless, a remand for additional investigation or 14 explanation is generally appropriate. See Marsh v. Colvin, 792 F.3d 1170, 1173 15 (9th Cir. 2015) (citations omitted). 16 IV. DISCUSSION 17 Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by improperly discounting her subjective 18 symptom testimony. (Plaintiff’s Motion at 6-15). For the reasons stated below, the 19 Court finds that the ALJ erred on this basis. Since the Court cannot find that the 20 error was harmless, a remand is warranted. 21 A. 22 When determining disability, an ALJ is required to consider a claimant’s Pertinent Law 23 impairment-related pain and other subjective symptoms at each step of the 24 sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), (d). Accordingly, when 25 a claimant presents “objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment 26 which might reasonably produce the pain or other symptoms [the claimant] 27 alleged,” the ALJ is required to determine the extent to which the claimant’s 28 statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her 5 1 subjective symptoms (“subjective statements” or “subjective complaints”) are 2 consistent with the record evidence as a whole and, consequently, whether any of 3 the individual’s symptom-related functional limitations and restrictions are likely 4 to reduce the claimant’s capacity to perform work-related activities. 20 C.F.R. 5 §§ 404.1529(a), (c)(4); SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *4-*10. 4 When an 6 individual’s subjective statements are inconsistent with other evidence in the 7 record, an ALJ may give less weight to such statements and, in turn, find that the 8 individual’s symptoms are less likely to reduce the claimant’s capacity to perform 9 work-related activities. See SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *8. In such cases, 10 when there is no affirmative finding of malingering, an ALJ may “reject” or give 11 less weight to the individual’s subjective statements “only by providing specific, 12 clear, and convincing reasons for doing so.” Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 488-89. 13 This requirement is very difficult to satisfy. See Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 678 (“The 14 clear and convincing standard is the most demanding required in Social Security 15 cases.”) (citation and quotation marks omitted). 16 An ALJ’s decision “must contain specific reasons” supported by substantial 17 evidence in the record for giving less weight to a claimant’s statements. SSR 1618 3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *10. An ALJ must clearly identify each subjective 19 statement being rejected and the particular evidence in the record which 20 purportedly undermines the statement. Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1103 (citation 21 omitted). Unless there is affirmative evidence of malingering, the Commissioner’s 22 reasons for rejecting a claimant’s testimony must be “clear and convincing.” 23 Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks 24 /// 25 4 26 27 28 Social Security Ruling 16-3p superseded SSR 96-7p and, in part, eliminated use of the term “credibility” from SSA “sub-regulatory policy[]” in order to “clarify that subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual’s [overall character or truthfulness] . . . [and] more closely follow [SSA] regulatory language regarding symptom evaluation.” See SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *1-*2, *10-*11. 6 1 omitted), as amended (Apr. 9, 1996). “General findings are insufficient[.]” 2 Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted). 3 If an ALJ’s evaluation of a claimant’s statements is reasonable and is 4 supported by substantial evidence, it is not the court’s role to second-guess it. See 5 Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). When 6 an ALJ fails properly to discuss a claimant’s subjective complaints, however, the 7 error may not be considered harmless “unless [the Court] can confidently conclude 8 that no reasonable ALJ, when fully crediting the testimony, could have reached a 9 different disability determination.” Stout, 454 F.3d at 1056; see also Brown10 Hunter, 806 F.3d at 492 (ALJ’s erroneous failure to specify reasons for rejecting 11 claimant testimony “will usually not be harmless”). 12 B. 13 Plaintiff alleged the following in her October 2016 function report (AR 242- Plaintiff’s Statements 14 44) and April 2019 hearing testimony (AR 51-57): 15 She can no longer work because of difficulty standing for long periods. (AR 16 53). She can stand for only about fifteen or twenty minutes and can walk for just 17 one or two blocks. (AR 52). She wears a metal ankle brace on each foot (AR 18 53-54), and has also been using a cane to walk for the past few years, on a doctor’s 19 recommendation. (AR 52). She had surgery on her left foot in the past, and has 20 been recommended for more surgery on the left foot, but doctors do not want to 21 operate due to her diabetes. (AR 55). 22 Plaintiff lives with her husband, two daughters, and two grandchildren. (AR 23 51). She does household chores such as cooking, laundry, dishes, sweeping, and 24 mopping, “but not all at once.” (AR 51-52). She has difficulty in doing these 25 tasks, and needs to take breaks to sit down about every ten or fifteen minutes 26 because she “feel[s] tired” and “the pain is too much.” (AR 56-57, 242). Plaintiff 27 can lift “[s]mall boxes that are not heavy,” but “not often,” and can carry “[r]egular 28 things around the house when doing house cleaning.” (AR 242). She is also able 7 1 to walk up two steps to get into the house, but it is “very hard to do so.” (AR 243). 2 She additionally shops for groceries once a week, but does not drive. (AR 51-52, 3 242-43). 4 C. 5 The ALJ failed to provide specific, clear and convincing reasons to reject Analysis 6 plaintiff’s subjective statements. Instead, the ALJ offered only general, boilerplate 7 assertions that plaintiff’s statements were “not entirely consistent” (or “not fully 8 consistent”) with “the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (AR 25, 9 29). Such broad assertions do not suffice. See Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1103 (“An 10 ALJ's ‘vague allegation’ that a claimant's testimony is ‘not consistent with the 11 objective medical evidence,’ without any ‘specific findings in support’ of that 12 conclusion is insufficient for our review.”) (quoting Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 13 586, 592 (2008)). 14 Defendant contends that the ALJ’s finding is adequately supported by his 15 assessment of the medical evidence, treatment history, and medical opinions. 16 (Defendant’s Opposition at 1-5). However, the Court “cannot substitute [its] 17 conclusions for the ALJ’s, or speculate as to the grounds for the ALJ’s 18 conclusions.” Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1103 (rejecting the government’s argument 19 that the court could “reasonably infer that the ALJ rejected [the claimant’s] 20 testimony to the extent it conflicted with that medical evidence”) (citation omitted). 21 Thus, “[a]lthough the ALJ did provide a relatively detailed overview of [plaintiff’s] 22 medical history, ‘providing a summary of medical evidence . . . is not the same as 23 providing clear and convincing reasons for finding the claimant’s symptom 24 testimony not credible.”5 Lambert v. Saul, 980 F.3d 1266, 1278 (9th Cir. 2020) 25 26 27 28 5 Morever, to the extent that the ALJ’s finding may have relied on a lack of objective medical evidence, this is not a sufficient basis, in itself, to reject a claimant’s testimony, although it may be a relevant factor. See, e.g., Burch, 400 F.3d at 681 (“Although lack of medical (continued...) 8 1 (quoting Brown-Hunter, 806 F.3d at 494). The ALJ did not provide such reasons 2 here. To the contrary, when discussing the treatment records and other evidence, 3 the ALJ never mentioned whether or how it conflicts with any of plaintiff’s 4 subjective testimony.6 (See AR 26-29). For example, the ALJ noted that plaintiff 5 has received “mostly conservative treatment” during the relevant period (AR 27), 6 but at no point did the ALJ “identify the specific testimony” that is undermined by 7 plaintiff’s treatment history. See Lambert, 980 F.3d at 1268 (“[T]he ALJ must 8 identify the specific testimony that he discredited and explain the evidence 9 undermining it.”). 10 Without such explanations, the Court cannot “meaningfully determine 11 whether the ALJ’s conclusions were supported by substantial evidence.” Treichler, 12 775 F.3d at 1103. Because the ALJ failed to provide specific, clear, and 13 convincing reasons to discount plaintiff’s subjective statements, remand is 14 warranted for reconsideration of these statements.7 See id. (“Because ‘the agency’s 15 path’ cannot ‘reasonably be discerned,’ we must reverse the district court’s 16 decision to the extent it affirmed the ALJ’s credibility determination.”) (quoting 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 5 (...continued) evidence cannot form the sole basis for discounting pain testimony, it is a factor that the ALJ can consider in his credibility analysis.”). The ALJ notably did not identify any evidence that affirmatively undermined or contradicted plaintiff’s testimony regarding her limited abilities. 6 At one point in the analysis of the medical opinions, the ALJ does address plaintiff’s testimony. Specifically, regarding a state agency medical consultant’s opinion that plaintiff could occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, the ALJ stated that he (the ALJ) “considered [plaintiff’s] subjective complaints – particularly, with respect to her testimony regarding her difficulties standing and walking around due to pain – which has been generously accommodated [in the residual functional capacity assessment’s] limitation of being precluded from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds.” (AR 28). Because this remark merely indicates that the ALJ adopted one limitation based on plaintiff’s testimony, it does not help explain why the ALJ otherwise discounted plaintiff’s subjective statements. 7 The Court need not, and has not adjudicated plaintiff’s other challenges to the ALJ’s decision, except insofar as to determine that a reversal and remand for immediate payment of benefits would not be appropriate. 9 1 Alaska Dep’t of Env’t Conserv. v. E.P.A., 540 U.S. 461, 497 (2004)); see also 2 Lambert, 980 F.3d at 1277 (“[O]ur precedents plainly required the ALJ to do more 3 than was done here, which consisted of offering non-specific conclusions that [the 4 claimant’s] testimony was inconsistent with her medical treatment.”)8 (citing 5 Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1138 (9th Cir. 2014)). 6 V. CONCLUSION 7 For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the Commissioner of Social 8 Security is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED for further administrative 9 action consistent with this Opinion.9 10 LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY. 11 DATED: April 1, 2021 12 _____________/s/____________________ Honorable Jacqueline Chooljian UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 13 14 15 16 8 17 18 19 20 21 In Lambert, the ALJ rejected the claimant’s testimony based on four reasons: First, Lambert had “not generally received the type of medical treatment one would expect for a totally disabled individual.” Second, the “record reflect[ed] significant gaps in [her] history of treatment and relatively infrequent trips to the doctor for the allegedly disabling symptoms.” Third, Lambert's “use of medications does not suggest the presence of impairments which is more limiting than found in this decision.” And finally, “medications have been relatively effective in controlling [her] symptoms.” 22 Lambert, 980 F.3d at 1270. The Ninth Circuit held that these “four high-level reasons” were not 23 clear and convincing reasons to reject the claimant’s testimony because the ALJ never specified 24 which testimony conflicted with the record evidence. Id. at 1277-78. 25 26 27 28 9 When a court reverses an administrative determination, “the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.” Immigration & Naturalization Service v. Ventura, 537 U.S. 12, 16 (2002) (citations and quotations omitted); Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099 (noting such “ordinary remand rule” applies in Social Security cases) (citations omitted). The Court has determined that a reversal and remand for immediate payment of benefits would not be appropriate. 10

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?