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Bynum v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 22, 2018

Marcus Cornell Bynum, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Marcus Cornell Bynum seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security which denied his disability insurance benefits under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. For reasons set forth below, the Court will deny Plaintiff's challenge to the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 42 year-old man with a high school education. A.R. 47, 158. Plaintiff previously worked as a dairy operator, a hazardous materials technician, a landscape laborer, and a truck driver. A.R. 70. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on November 18, 2013, alleging disability beginning May 2, 2013. A.R. 155-61. On May 17, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 38-75. A vocational expert also testified. Id. On August 1, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from May 2, 2013, through August 11, 2014. A.R. 15-32. But the ALJ found Plaintiff's disability ceased as of August 11, 2014, based on medical improvement. Id. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 3, 2017. A.R. 1-5.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “[w]here the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted).

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). In reviewing the ALJ's reasoning, the Court is “not deprived of [its] faculties for drawing specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         III. The ALJ's Sequential Evaluation Process.

         A. Disability Determination.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2018, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2013. A.R. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments from May 2, 2013 through August 11, 2014: cervical disc protrusion and syrinx, lumbar degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy status post right L4 hemilaminotomy, and partial facetectomy. A.R. 23. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, but due to pain associated with his impairments, Plaintiff would be off-task twenty percent of the workday. A.R. 23. At step five, the ALJ found, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that no jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed from May 2, 2013 through August 11, 2014. A.R. 27.

         B. Continuation of Disability.

         Plaintiff underwent back surgery in April 2014. A.R. 25. The ALJ found that evidence in the record showed significant improvement in Plaintiff's condition after the surgery.

         Once an ALJ finds a claimant disabled, the ALJ follows an eight-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant's disability continues through the date of the decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)-(8). The ALJ determines whether: (1) the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, (2) the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment, (3) medical improvement has occurred, (4) medical improvement is related to ability to work, (5) an exception to medical improvement applies, and whether (6) all the claimant's current combined impairments are severe. Then the ALJ assesses (7) the claimant's RFC based on current impairments and determines whether he can perform past relevant work, and (8) whether the claimant can perform other work that is suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         The ALJ followed this sequential process and found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since he became disabled on May 2, 2013. A.R. 22. At steps two and six, the ALJ found Plaintiff had no new impairments since August 12, 2014, the date his disability ended, and that his severe impairments were the same. A.R. 28. At step three, the ALJ found medical improvement occurred as of August 12, 2014. A.R. 28. At step four, the ALJ found the medical improvement was related to ability to work and that Plaintiff's RFC had increased. A.R. 29. Under steps seven and eight, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work (A.R. 31), but that he could perform the full range of sedentary work and, beginning August 12, 2014, jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (A.R. 32).[1]

         IV. Analysis.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is defective for two reasons: (1) the ALJ erred in giving little to partial weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Landsman; and (2) the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's ...


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