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TRENT v. BARNHART

May 14, 2003

BILLY TRENT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Maxine M. Chesney, United States District Judge

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSSMOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Plaintiff Billy Trent ("Trent") brings the above-titled action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying his application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under the Social Security Act. Before the Court is Trent's motion for summary judgment and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment. Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 16-5, the motions have been submitted on the papers without oral argument. Having considered the papers submitted in support of and in opposition to the motions, the Court rules as follows.

BACKGROUND

Trent was born on April 20, 1941. (Certified Transcript of Record of Proceedings ("Tr.") 83). On March 31, 1999, Trent, who was then 57, filed an application for benefits, (Tr. 83-85), alleging that he was unable to work as a result of the following impairments: "Blind in left eye; hearing impaired; left foot crushed on job." (Tr. 93.) After Trent's application was initially denied by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), (Tr. 70-73), Trent sought reconsideration, adding the allegation that he was disabled as a result of a "stroke." (Tr. 74, 75.) After reconsideration was denied, (Tr. 75-78), Trent requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 79.)

On August 2, 2000, the ALJ conducted a hearing and, on December 28, 2000, issued a decision finding that Trent was not disabled. (Tr. 10-14.) The ALJ found that Trent "has no impairment or combination of impairments that more than minimally limits his ability to perform basic work activity," and therefore Trent "does not have a `severe' impairment." (Tr. 14.) Alternatively, the ALJ found that even if, as one examining physician had opined, Trent's impairments limited him to performing light to medium work, Trent could perform his past relevant work in electrical assembly. (Tr. 13.) Trent filed a timely request for review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request. (Tr. 4-6.) On August 2, 2001, Trent filed the instant action.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Commissioner's determination to deny disability benefits will not be disturbed if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and based on the application of correct legal standards. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The reviewing court must consider the Administrative record as a whole, and weigh both the evidence supporting and detracting from the ALJ's decision. See id. If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the reviewing court will uphold the decision of the ALJ. See id.

DISCUSSION

Disability claims are analyzed under a five-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.*fn1 Here, the ALJ denied Trent's application at the second step, finding Trent did not have a severe impairment and, alternatively, at the fourth step, finding that if Trent had a severe impairment, he can perform his past relevant work.

A. Second Step

The sole issue raised in Trent's motion for summary judgment is: "Whether the ALJ committed error by determining that plaintiff does not have a severe medical impairment." (See Pl.'s Mot. at 2:15-16.) As a remedy, Trent seeks remand for further "development" of the record at the second step. (See id. at 3:25-26, 4:6-7, 4:21-23, 5:1-2, 5:14-15.) In other words, Trent seeks an order directing the ALJ to reconsider whether Trent has a severe impairment. Because Trent does not challenge the ALJ's alternative finding that even if Trent has a severe impairment, Trent is not prohibited from performing his past relevant work, the Court questions whether analysis of the sole issue raised in Trent's motion for summary judgment is necessary. In an abundance of caution, however, the Court will address the merits of Trent's argument.

At the second step, the claimant has the burden*fn2 to establish "he has an impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987) (internal quotations and citation omitted). An ALJ may deny a claim at the second step only where the evidence shows that the claimant's impairment or impairments "do not have more than a minimal effect on the person's physical or mental ability(ies) to perform basic work activities." See Social Security Ruling 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, *3; see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 154 n. 12 (observing that Social Security Ruling 85-28 "clarif[ies] the policy for determining when a person's impairment(s) may be found not severe"). "If such a finding is not clearly established by medical evidence . . . adjudication must continue through the sequential evaluation process." See Social Security Ruling 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, *3.

A finding that a claimant does not have a severe impairment must be affirmed where the finding is supported by substantial evidence. See Gonzalez Garcia v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 835 F.2d 1, 2-3 (1st Cir. 1987) (holding ALJ's finding that claimant's "degenerative joint disease" and "levoscohosis" were not severe impairments was supported by substantial evidence where three physicians opined, respectively, that (1) claimant had "full straight leg raising, ability to squat and walk in the heels, normal gait, and normal sensory and motor systems," (2) claimant's examination "revealed no evidence of muscle wasting, atrophies or weakness, and that the verbetral column was within normal limits," and (3) "claimant was able to sit, stand, bend, reach, squat, kneel and ambulate well"); cf. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (holding ALJ's finding that claimant did not have severe impairment was not supported by substantial evidence where "undisputed evidence" established claimant's fatigue and back pain "inhibited her ability to do basic work activities such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting and carrying").

Here, Trent claims he has a severe impairment or impairments, specifically, a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, impairments resulting from the effects of a June 1999 ischemic attack, and a foot impairment. The ALJ found that none of those "problems" more than minimally limited Trent's ability to perform basic work activity, and thus concluded that Trent did not have a severe impairment. (See Tr. 12-13.) Trent ...


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