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Cajigal v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

June 15, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.



         For the reasons below, the Court AFFIRMS the administrative law judge's denial of benefits and supplemental security income to Plaintiff.


         On January 30, 2014, Plaintiff Tina Cajigal (formerly known as Tina Young) filed an application for a period of disability and for disability insurance benefits. Administrative Record (“AR”) 66; see also AR 21, 75. Plaintiff also protectively filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on March 26, 2014. AR 21, 164. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning May 3, 2012. AR 66, 162, 164.

         Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on September 25, 2014, AR 66-74, and upon reconsideration on February 26, 2015. AR 91-103. Thereafter, on March 10, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), AR 121, and a hearing was held on May 26, 2016, AR 134. On June 27, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 18-30. Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision on August 23, 2016. AR 160-61. The Appeals Council denied her request and adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commission on July 21, 2017. AR 1-4.

         Plaintiff filed her complaint on September 22, 2017, seeking a review of the denial of her applications. ECF No. 1. On May 1, 2018, Plaintiff filed her opening brief (“Op. Br.”). ECF No. 17. Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), filed her answering brief on May 18, 2018 (“Ans. Br.”). ECF No. 20. Plaintiff filed her reply brief on May 25, 2018 (“Reply Br.”). ECF No. 21.

         The Court has scheduled a hearing on Plaintiff's requested review of the Commissioner's decision at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, June 13, 2018.


         A district court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review final decisions of the Commissioner of Social Security.[1] A final decision by the Commissioner denying Social Security disability benefits and supplemental security income will not be disturbed by the reviewing district court if the decision is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dale v. Colvin, 823 F.3d 941, 943 (9th Cir. 2016); Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989).

         In determining the existence of substantial evidence, the administrative record must be considered as a whole, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's factual conclusions. See Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir. 2014). “Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Moreover, “[i]f the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1075 (9th Cir. 2002) (explaining that if “the record considered as a whole can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Commissioner's decision, we must affirm”). This principle recognizes the ALJ's ability “to determine credibility, resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities in the record.” Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).


         “To establish a claimant's eligibility for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, it must be shown that: (a) the claimant suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months; and (b) the impairment renders the claimant incapable of performing the work that the claimant previously performed and incapable of performing any other substantial gainful employment that exists in the national economy.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); see 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A claimant must satisfy both requirements in order to qualify as “disabled” under the Social Security Act. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098.

         I. The SSA's Five-Step Process for Determining Disability

         The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1003 (9th Cir.2005); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. “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.” Ukolov, 420 F.3d at 1003 (citations omitted in original). The claimant bears the burden of proof as to steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Social Security Administration at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098.

         At step one, the ALJ considers a claimant's work activity, if any. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Where the ALJ finds the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he will determine that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of the claimant's medical condition, age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Substantial gainful activity is work that is defined as both substantial-i.e. work activity involving significant physical or mental activities-and gainful-i.e. work activity done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098.

         Step two requires the ALJ to consider the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (4)(ii). Only if the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that “significantly limits [her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities” will the analysis proceed to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If not, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii).

         The severity of the claimant's impairments is also considered at step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). There, the ALJ determines whether a claimant's impairments meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment specifically described in the regulations. Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairments do meet or equal these criteria, the claimant is deemed disabled and the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If not, the analysis proceeds to step four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).

         At step four, the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. An RFC is the most the claimant can still do in a work setting despite her physical and/or mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ will consider all of the relevant evidence in the claimant's case record regarding both severe and non-severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. This assessment is then used to determine whether the claimant can still perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Past relevant work is defined as “work that [the claimant has] done within the past 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1). The ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled if she can still perform her past relevant work, at which point the analysis ends. Otherwise, the ALJ moves to step five.

         At the fifth and final step, the ALJ will once again consider the claimant's RFC-along with her age, education, and work experience-in order to determine whether the claimant can perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Here, the Commissioner is responsible for providing “evidence that demonstrates that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can do.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2). If the claimant is unable to perform other work, she is deemed disabled; if she can make an adjustment to other available work, she is considered not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         II. The ALJ's Analysis

         a. Steps One, Two, and Three

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in gainful activity since May 3, 2012, the alleged onset date, and at step two, that she suffered from the following severe impairments: post laminectomy syndrome in the lumbar spine and degenerative lumbar disc disease. AR 23. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 24. Plaintiff does not contest the findings the ALJ made at these steps.

         a. Steps Four and Five

         At steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work. AR 24. The ALJ found that Plaintiff “could not climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds but otherwise would have occasional limitation in postural movements; she must avoid moderate exposure to hazards; and she must alternate positions, approximately every 30 minutes from sitting to standing, and from standing to sitting . . . .” AR 24. The ALJ further determined at step four that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. AR 28. At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled because there is other work she can perform in the national economy.[2] AR 29.

         Based on the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff was not disabled, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance ...

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