United States District Court, D. Hawaii
ORDER AFFIRMING THE SOCIAL SECURITY
ADMINISTRATION'S DENIAL OF BENEFITS TO PLAINTIFF RONALD
Michael Seabright Chief United States District Judge
an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review a
final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
Carolyn W. Colvin (the “Commissioner, ” or
“Defendant”). Ronald James Jose
(“Jose” or “Plaintiff”) appeals
Defendant's adoption of Administrative Law Judge Jennifer
M. Horne's (“ALJ Horne”) September 25, 2014
decision finding Plaintiff not disabled under the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-83f (the
“September 25 Decision”). Plaintiff argues that
the September 25 Decision must be overturned because it is
not based on substantial evidence and the record is
incomplete. Based on the following, the court AFFIRMS the
Commissioner's denial of benefits to Plaintiff because
the September 25 Decision is supported by substantial
evidence and ALJ Horne did not breach any duty to further
develop the record.
born in 1958, worked as a heavy machine operator and truck
driver from 1975 through 2011. Admin. R. (“AR”)
at 44, 77, 143-45, ECF No. 20. At the end of 2011, Plaintiff
was laid off and then began taking care of his wife, who
passed away from cancer in 2012. Id. at 46-47.
filed for Social Security and Disability Insurance benefits
on June 29, 2012, id. at 134-42, alleging disability
since January 15, 2012, id. at 77. His claim was
denied twice -- once on January 24, 2013, and again upon
reconsideration on December 3, 2013. Id. at 76-109.
On December 20, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for a
hearing. Id. at 110. A hearing was conducted on
April 14, 2014, before ALJ Horne, in which Plaintiff and
vocational expert Harlan S. Stock testified. Id. at
23. Including the information summarized above, the evidence
before ALJ Horne relevant to this appeal includes the
Plaintiff's Testimony and Statements
testified that he worked as a heavy machine operator and
truck driver, id. at 44, until he was laid off in
2011 because his employer “sent the machines back to
Kauai, ” id. at 46. At that point, he began
caring for his wife, who had cancer, until she passed away in
2012. Id. at 46-47. He testified that he could not
return to his old jobs “since [his] back started
hurting.” Id. at 49.
admitted that, as of January 2013, he could walk for half a
mile and lift 100 pounds. Id. However, his back got
worse five months before his April 2014 hearing, and he no
longer had the same ability. Id. at 50. The pain
manifested between his hip and pelvis on his left side,
reaching down his left leg. Id. at 53.
testified that the pain is not present all the time, but hits
him “all of a sudden” after he stands and walks.
Id. This has led to his use of a cane, which allows
him to “get little bit relief [sic].”
Id. at 54. He further testified that he can stand
for about 10 or 20 minutes, walk for about 10 minutes, and
lift 20 pounds. Id. at 54-55. He cooks, shops,
bathes, dresses, and shaves on his own, and takes his
grandsons to go shooting. Id. at 56-60.
Dr. Joseph Bratton's Psychological
Joseph Bratton conducted a psychological evaluation of
Plaintiff on November 25, 2013. Id. at 408.
Generally, Dr. Bratton observed that Plaintiff “seemed
physically capable, showing no obvious gross difficulties in
ambulating while here” but “his handwriting was
horrible, suggesting some nerve/brain damage.”
Id. at 410. Additionally, he was “always
polite and cooperative” and his thoughts “seemed
logical and linear, with no sign of thought disorder; no
delusional thinking.” Id.
administering several psychological tests, Dr. Bratton
concluded that Plaintiff: “could understand and yet not
recall mostly oral instructions, ” “could not
currently attend a low stress job site, ” “could
not work with coworkers and a supervisor, with limited
contact, ” and “could not presently adapt to the
normal workplace psychological requirements.”
Id. at 412-13.
September 25, 2014, ALJ Horne issued her decision finding
Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 23-31. The Appeals
Council subsequently rejected Plaintiff's request to
review the September 25 decision, and the September 25
decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on
December 18, 2015. Id. at 1-4.
February 18, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Complaint seeking
judicial review of the September 25 decision. Compl., ECF No.
1. On July 20, 2016, Plaintiff filed his Opening Brief, and
on August 29, 2016, Defendant filed its Answering Brief.
Pl.'s Br., ECF No. 23; Def.'s Br., ECF No. 26.
Plaintiff did not file a Reply Brief.
hearing was held on October 11, 2016. Supplemental letter
briefing was provided to the court on October 17, 2016.
Pl.'s Supp. Br., ECF No. 28; Def.'s Supp. Br., ECF
STANDARD OF REVIEW
has provided a limited scope of judicial review of the
Commissioner's decision to deny benefits under the Social
Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In
reviewing findings of fact with respect with to such
determinations, the court must uphold the Commissioner's
decision, made through an ALJ, “unless it is based on
legal error or is not supported by substantial
evidence.” Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). “Substantial
evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a
preponderance.” Id. (quoting Bayliss v.
Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005)).
Stated differently, “[s]ubstantial evidence means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion.” Burch v.
Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing
Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir.
1989)). With that said, however, “a reviewing court
must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm
simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting
evidence.'” Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1198
(quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880,
882 (9th Cir. 2006)).
insurance benefits are available under Title II of the Social
Security Act when an eligible claimant is unable “to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . .
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). An individual is disabled only if his
impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his
previous work, and cannot, considering his age, education,
and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful
activity existing in the national economy. Id.
Social Security Administration has established a five-step
sequential analysis to assess disability claims, which asks:
(1) Is the claimant presently working in a substantially
gainful activity? If yes, the claimant is “not
(2) Is the claimant's impairment severe? If no, the
claimant is “not disabled.”
(3) Does the impairment “meet or equal” one of a
list of specific impairments described in the regulations? If
yes, the claimant is “disabled.”
(4) Is the claimant able to do any work that he or she has
done in the past? If yes, the claimant is “not
(5) Is the claimant able to do any other work? If yes, the
claimant is “not disabled.”
See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th
Cir. 1999). For steps one through four, the burden of proof
is on the claimant, and if “a claimant is found to be
‘disabled' or ‘not disabled' at any step
in the sequence, there is no need to consider subsequent
steps.” Id. at 1098. If the claimant reaches
step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner.
Horne's September 25 Decision found that Plaintiff: (1)
was not engaged in a substantial gainful activity; (2) had
three severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the
lumbar spine, major depressive disorder, and obesity; (3) did
not have an impairment meeting one of the list of specific
impairments described in the regulations; and (4) was unable
to perform any past relevant work. AR at 25-29. Thus,
Plaintiff survived steps one through four, shifting the
burden to the Commissioner. ALJ Horne further found that
Plaintiff failed at step five, as the Commissioner
established that there were jobs existing in significant
numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform
given Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). Id. at 30.
now argues that ALJ Horne erroneously: (A) excluded
limitations derived from his diabetes and use of a cane when
determining his RFC; (B) rejected the opinion of Dr. Bratton;
(C) failed to consider Plaintiff's prior work record when
determining his credibility; and (D) failed to meet her duty
to Plaintiff by not informing Plaintiff of his right to
counsel and inadequately developing the record in
Plaintiff's favor. The court addresses these allegations in
The ALJ's Finding Concerning Residual Functional
discussing and determining Plaintiff's RFC, ALJ Horne did
not find Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain to be
credible, and consequently did not consider limitations
caused by Plaintiff's use of a cane or his
diabetes. In determining Plaintiff's
credibility, ALJ Horne did not explicitly consider
Plaintiff's prior work record. Plaintiff now argues that
all three exclusions are error.
“engages in a two-step analysis” when
“assessing the credibility of a claimant's
testimony regarding subjective pain or the intensity of
symptoms.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104,
1112 (9th Cir. 2012). At the first step, “the ALJ must
determine whether there is objective medical evidence of an
underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to
produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.”
Id. (internal quotation marks and citations
omitted). If a claimant's testimony is supported by
objective medical evidence, he “need not show that
[his] impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the
severity of the symptom [he] has alleged; [he] need only ...