Juan Garcia Rueda v. Andrew Saul

Filing 27

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER by Magistrate Judge Gail J. Standish, For all of the foregoing reasons, IT IS ORDERED that the decision of the Commissioner finding Plaintiff not disabled is AFFIRMED. See Order for details. (es)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 JUAN R.,1 12 Case No. 2:20-cv-11257-GJS Plaintiff 13 v. 14 KILOLO KIJAKAZI, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,2 15 MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER Defendant. 16 17 I. 18 PROCEDURAL HISTORY Plaintiff Juan R. (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint seeking review of the decision 19 of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for Disability 20 Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The parties 21 filed consents to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge 22 23 1 24 In the interest of privacy, this Order uses only the first name and the initial of the last name of the non-governmental party. 25 2 26 27 28 On July 9, 2021, Kilolo Kijakazi was named Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. See https://www.ssa.gov/history/commissioners.html. She is therefore substituted as the defendant in this action. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (referring to the “Commissioner's Answer”); 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(d) (“the person holding the Office of the Commissioner shall, in [their] official capacity, be the proper defendant”). 1 [Dkts. 11 and 12] and briefs addressing disputed issues in the case [Dkt. 16 (“Pltf. 2 Br.”) and Dkt. 24 (“Def. Br.”)]. The Court has taken the parties’ briefing under 3 submission without oral argument. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds 4 that this matter should be affirmed. 5 6 II. ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION UNDER REVIEW Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as of March 5, 7 2017. [Dkt. 15, Administrative Record (“AR”) 22.] Plaintiff’s applications were 8 denied at the initial level of review and on reconsideration. [AR 22, 169-174, 177- 9 182.] On July 31, 2020, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge 10 Pearline Hardy (“the ALJ”). [AR 36-56.] On August 11, 2020, the ALJ issued an 11 unfavorable decision. [AR 22-30.] 12 The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to find Plaintiff 13 not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b)-(g)(1). At step one, the ALJ found that 14 Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. 15 [AR 24.] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe 16 impairments of sensorineural hearing loss bilaterally, gout, and obesity. [AR 25.] 17 At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or 18 combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of 19 the impairments listed in Appendix I of the Regulations, (“the Listings”). [AR 25]. 20 Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to 21 perform medium work (20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c)), with the following limitations: 22 27 no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolding; occasional climbing of ramps or stairs and crawling; frequent kneeling and balancing; occasional pushing and pulling of the bilateral lower extremities; occasional operation of foot controls; no telephone communication required for job tasks or fine hearing capability required; a moderate noise level environment; and no work at unprotected heights. 28 [AR 25.] At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past 23 24 25 26 2 1 relevant work. [AR 28.] At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could 2 perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including 3 representative occupations such as packer, linen room attendant, and laundry worker 4 based on Plaintiff’s RFC, age (58 years at time of application), marginal education, 5 and work experience. [AR 28.] The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ’s decision on October 27, 6 7 2020. [AR 1-9.] This action followed. III. GOVERNING STANDARD 8 Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to 9 10 determine if: (1) the Commissioner’s findings are supported by substantial 11 evidence; and (2) the Commissioner used correct legal standards. Carmickle v. 12 Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008); Hoopai v. Astrue, 13 499 F.3d 1071, 1074 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is “such relevant 14 evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 15 Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal citation and quotations 16 omitted); see also Hoopai, 499 F.3d at 1074. IV. DISCUSSION 17 In his first two issues, Plaintiff contends that the decision of the 18 19 Commissioner should be remanded because the ALJ failed to fully develop the 20 record, specifically by failing to order an updated consultative examination and/or 21 obtaining a medical expert’s opinion at the administrative hearing. [Pltf.’s Br. at 2- 22 5.] In his third and fourth issues, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred at step five 23 when she failed to account for his inability to speak English in the RFC. [Pltf.’s Br. 24 at 7-8.] The Court addresses Plaintiff’s contentions below and finds that reversal is 25 not warranted. 26 1. Waiver and Duty to Develop the Record 27 A. Relevant Proceedings Related to Plaintiff’s Hearing Loss 28 On January 31, 2018, Plaintiff filed his applications for benefits, alleging that 3 1 he became disabled and unable to work as of March 5, 2017, due to partial hearing 2 loss, left knee pain, and shoulder pain. [AR 314-15, 316-20, 369.] On January 27, 3 2018, Plaintiff visited audiologist Sarah Balsam for “his annual audiological 4 evaluation and hearing aid evaluation.” [AR 444.] His test results from the 5 audiological exam indicated “essentially mild hearing loss in his right ear and 6 moderate to profound hearing loss in his left ear. Word recognition scores 7 demonstrated good speech discrimination in his right ear and a poor understanding 8 of the left ear.” [AR 444.] Due to his hearing limitations and sensitivity in his left 9 ear, the audiologist recommended specialized hearing aids for both ears. [AR 445.] 10 A few months later on May 21, 2018, internal medicine physician, Azizollah 11 Karamlou, M.D. conducted a consultative examination (“CE”). [AR 452-453.] In 12 addition to the physical examination, Dr. Karamlou reviewed Ms. Balsam’s 13 audiology report concerning Plaintiff’s hearing loss. [AR 452.] Dr. Karamlou 14 determined that Plaintiff suffers with “decreased hearing acuity” and “he currently 15 has difficulty hearing with normal conversation” for which “he has been evaluated 16 and was advised to use a hearing aid.” [AR 452.] Based on the clinical findings, 17 Dr. Karamlou opined that Plaintiff could perform the equivalent of light work with 18 exertional limitations that would need to accommodate Plaintiff’s “severe 19 compromised hearing condition.” [AR 453.] 20 Two years later, Plaintiff appeared with his attorney from the Bill LaTour 21 Law Offices at a hearing before the ALJ on July 31, 2020. [AR 38-56.] At the 22 beginning of the hearing, the ALJ confirmed with Plaintiff’s counsel that he had an 23 opportunity to review the record. When invited to bring up any issues about the 24 record, counsel agreed that the record was complete. [AR 41.] During the hearing, 25 Plaintiff testified that he stopped working in 2017 due to problems with his ears. 26 [AR 44-45.] Plaintiff explained that he “experiences pain on the left side of his ear” 27 and noises cause his eardrums to feel numb. [AR 45, 46.] He is unable to hear in 28 his left ear, but he “can listen a little” in his right ear. [AR 45.] At the end of the 4 1 hearing, the ALJ indicated that a decision would be out as soon as possible. [AR 2 55.] Counsel did not request to hold the record open so that he could submit 3 additional medical evidence. [AR 55.] 4 B. Discussion 5 In the instant motion, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to discharge her 6 legal duty to obtain a more recent expert opinion from a testifying medical expert or 7 a second consultative examiner on Plaintiff’s hearing loss. Defendant counters that: 8 (1) Plaintiff forfeited his duty to develop argument because his attorney advised the 9 ALJ that the administrative record was complete; and (2) even if Plaintiff’s 10 argument was not waived, there was no ambiguity or inadequacy in the record to 11 trigger the ALJ’s duty to develop the record. [Def.’s Br. at 8-12.] 12 Preliminarily, as a rule, “when claimants are represented by counsel, they 13 must raise all issues and evidence at their administrative hearings in order to 14 preserve them on appeal.” Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1115 (9th Cir. 1999). 15 Further, courts have determined that when counsel represents a claimant at the 16 hearing and indicates the record is “complete,” the claimant waived any challenge 17 that the ALJ erred by not developing the record. See, e.g., Findley v. Saul, 2019 18 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147761, 2019 WL 4072364 at *6 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 28, 2019) 19 (finding the ALJ was not obligated to further develop the record where counsel 20 stated at the hearing that the record was complete); Chavez v. Berryhill, 2019 U.S. 21 Dist. LEXIS 167329, 2019 WL 4738235 at *10 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 27, 2019) (where 22 counsel stated “unequivocally” that “[t]he record is complete,” the court found the 23 plaintiff waived her argument that “the Commissioner failed to develop the record” 24 because the issue was not raised at the hearing); Michelle Alicia S. v. Berryhill, 2019 25 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24487, 2019 WL 631913 at *8 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 14, 2019) (“the 26 ALJ did not err in not developing the record further,” and the claimant “waived her 27 right to make the [argument] by agreeing that the record was complete”); Morussi v. 28 Astrue, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159197, 2012 WL 5412106 (C.D. Cal. Nov. 5, 2012) 5 1 (rejecting an argument that “the ALJ erred in failing to obtain additional treatment 2 records” because “[t]he ALJ had no obligation to search for additional records when 3 plaintiff’s attorney affirmatively represented that the records were complete”). 4 Here, Plaintiff was represented at the administrative hearing by an attorney 5 from the Bill LaTour Law Offices, the law firm that is also representing Plaintiff 6 with this appeal. [AR 22.] The ALJ asked counsel if he “had an opportunity to 7 review the record.” [AR 40-41.] Counsel confirmed he reviewed the record. [AR 8 41.] When the ALJ inquired whether the record was “complete,” counsel 9 responded: “It is complete, Your Honor.” [AR 41.] Because counsel confirmed the 10 record was complete—and did not raise the issue at the administrative level 11 regarding the older examining opinion—the issue has been waived on appeal. See 12 Meanel, 172 F.3d at 1115; Findley, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147761, 2019 WL 13 4072364 at *6; Chavez, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167329, 2019 WL 4738235 at *10. 14 Moreover, even if the issue had not been forfeited, Plaintiff has not shown 15 that it warrants remand. “An ALJ’s duty to develop the record further is triggered 16 only when there is ambiguous evidence or when the record is inadequate to allow 17 for proper evaluation of the evidence.” Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459-60 18 (9th Cir. 2001). Plaintiff has not demonstrated that the record was ambiguous or 19 inadequate to allow for proper evaluation. Rather, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s 20 duty to develop the record further was automatically triggered because the 21 examining physician’s opinion—authored two years prior to the ALJ’s decision— 22 had become stale. [Pltf.’s Br. at 3.] 23 Contrary to Plaintiff’s assertion, the age of a medical opinion alone does not 24 render it stale. See David P. v. Saul, No. 19-cv-01506-BEN-AHG, 2020 WL 25 4593311, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 11, 2020) (adopting report and recommendation that 26 held a two-year-old medical opinion was not stale), vacated and remanded on other 27 grounds sub nom., Politte v. Kijakazi, No. 21-55341, 2021 WL 5860767 (9th Cir. 28 Aug. 10, 2021). Moreover, an updated opinion is not required simply because time 6 1 elapses between an examination and the ALJ’s decision. See Owen v. Saul, 808 2 Fed. Appx. 421, 423 (9th Cir. 2020) (“[T]here is always some time lapse between a 3 consultant’s report and the ALJ hearing and decision, and the Social Security 4 regulations impose no limit on such a gap in time.”) Such an occurrence is quite 5 common. See De Hoog v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., No. 2:13cv0235-KJN, 2014 U.S. 6 Dist. LEXIS 100712, 2014 WL 3687499, at *7 (E.D. Cal. July 23, 2014) (explaining 7 that “[i]n virtually every case further evidence is received after the [S]tate agency 8 physicians render their assessments—sometimes additional evidence and records are 9 even received after the ALJ hearing.) To render an opinion stale, “subsequent evidence must be contradictory—or 10 11 at least inconsistent—with the earlier opinion in some material manner.” 12 Digiacomo v. Saul, No. 19-cv-00494-BAM, 2020 WL 6318207, at *8 (E.D. Cal. 13 Oct. 28, 2020) (finding no error when the plaintiff had not identified subsequent 14 records that were “materially inconsistent” with the opinions relied upon). Here, 15 Plaintiff does not cite or otherwise identify any ambiguous or unclear treatment notes, 16 medical opinions, or other evidence. The ALJ summarized the medical evidence in the 17 record, including evidence related to Plaintiff’s hearing loss and Plaintiff’s testimony 18 about his use of hearing aids, and determined Plaintiff’s RFC with the support of that 19 record. [AR 27.] That evidence was complete, and Plaintiff has not pointed to any 20 evidence suggesting that his hearing loss or other severe impairments worsened after 21 the consultative examination. Accordingly, the ALJ was not obligated to further 22 develop the record. See Albrecht v. Astrue, No. 1:11-cv-01319 GSA, 2012 U.S. 23 Dist. LEXIS 121517, 2012 WL 3704798, at *12 (E.D. Cal. Aug. 27, 2012) 24 (Consultative examination regarding Plaintiff’s impairments “not necessary” where 25 the existing evidence was sufficient to support the ALJ's determination…and such 26 an exam was not needed to resolve an inconsistency). 27 2. 28 The ALJ’s Consideration of Plaintiff’s Inability to Speak English In his next two issues, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step five by 7 1 failing to include in her RFC assessment or in the VE hypothetical that Plaintiff was 2 unable to communicate in English. [Pltf.’s Br. at 5-8.] Plaintiff notes that while the 3 ALJ found that he has a marginal education (based on his sixth-grade education in 4 Mexico), the ALJ did not make a finding regarding whether Plaintiff—who 5 primarily speaks Spanish and testified with the assistance of a Spanish interpreter— 6 can communicate in English. [AR 28.] Although Plaintiff fails to include the 7 appropriate citation, Plaintiff’s argument relies on 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564, 8 416.964(b)(5) for the proposition that “education level” includes consideration of 9 the ability to speak, read and understand English. See 20 CFR 404.1564(b)(5) and 10 416.964(b)(5). 11 In response, the Commissioner contends that Plaintiff’s argument relies on an 12 outdated version of 20 C.F.R. § 416.964, and that the ALJ’s decision complies with 13 the applicable version of that regulation. [Def.’s Br. at 13-15 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 14 416.964).] Plaintiff did not file a reply. 15 As correctly noted by the Commissioner, the regulation concerning education 16 has been amended to eliminate any reference to the ability to speak, read and 17 understand English. See Alicea v. Kijakazi, 2022 WL 902858, at *8, 2022 U.S. Dist. 18 LEXIS 55905 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 11, 2022); Valdizon v. Kijakazi, No. 1:20-CV-01271- 19 SKO, 2022 WL 378656 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2022) (noting that 20 C.F.R. § 404.1564 20 was amended to eliminate “inability to communicate in English” as an education 21 category.) This was based on an agency finding that English language facility “is no 22 longer a useful indicator of an individual’s educational attainment or of the 23 vocational impact of an individual’s education because of changes in the national 24 workforce since we adopted the current rule more than 40 years ago.” 85 Fed. Reg. 25 10,586, 10,601 (Feb. 25, 2020). The effective date of the amendment was April 27, 26 2020, and the agency determined that the amendment would apply “to claims that 27 are pending on or after the effective date.” SSR 20-1p, No. SSA-2017-0046, 2020 28 SSR LEXIS 2, 2020 WL 1083309 (Mar. 9, 2020). 8 1 The ALJ’s decision in the instant case was rendered on August 11, 2020, 2 three months after the effective date of the amendment. Plaintiff has not shown that 3 the ALJ’s decision fails to comply with the regulations applicable at the time of the 4 decision. Furthermore, Plaintiff has cited no authority requiring an ALJ to address 5 English proficiency limitations in an RFC assessment or a VE hypothetical under 6 the current regulatory scheme. Recent agency guidance suggests that such a 7 consideration would be inappropriate. See Social Security Ruling 20-01p, 2020 8 SSR LEXIS 2, at *4, available at 2020 SSR LEXIS 2, 2020 WL 1285114 (Mar. 9 9 2020) (“When determining the appropriate education category, we will not consider 10 whether an individual attained his or her education in another country or whether the 11 individual lacks English language proficiency.”). Accordingly, Plaintiff has not 12 shown that the ALJ’s decision contains reversible error in failing to explicitly 13 discuss Plaintiff's lack of ability to communicate in English at step five. 14 Remand on this issue is unwarranted. 15 V. CONCLUSION 16 For all of the foregoing reasons, IT IS ORDERED that the decision of the 17 Commissioner finding Plaintiff not disabled is AFFIRMED. 18 19 IT IS ORDERED. 20 21 22 23 DATED: July 29, 2022 ___________________________________ GAIL J. STANDISH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 24 25 26 27 28 9

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