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Harris v. Astrue

February 2, 2009

DAMOND HARRIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of disability benefits. The court finds that judgment should be granted in favor of defendant, affirming the Commissioner's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Damond Harris was born on January 30, 1973, and was thirty-four years old at the time of his administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 37, 138.] He has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a warehouse laborer, industrial painter, painter's helper and construction laborer. [AR 20.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of a pain in his left foot, back, neck, left hip and knees, and depression, due to a workplace accident. [AR 80.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff's complaint was lodged on April 10, 2008, and filed on April 23, 2008. On October 30, 2008, defendant filed an answer and plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On January 8, 2009, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on October 19, 2005, alleging disability since August 19, 2003. [AR 70, 138.] After the applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was scheduled for February 21, 2007, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jay Levine. [AR 59.] Plaintiff did not appear at the hearing, but he later wrote a letter to the Commissioner stating that he had been involved in an automobile accident on February 15, 2007. [AR 115.] The ALJ ordered the case dismissed on April 24, 2007, citing plaintiff's failure to provide evidence corroborating the explanation. [AR 70-71.] Plaintiff later submitted a police report documenting the accident. [AR 117-24.] On July 21, 2007, the Appeals Council ordered remand for an administrative hearing, finding that plaintiff had good reason not to appear at the initial hearing. [AR 126-27.]

An administrative hearing was held on November 28, 2007, before ALJ Levine. [AR 37.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from plaintiff and vocational expert David Rinehart. [AR 38.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on February 12, 2008. [AR 14-21.] When the Appeals Council denied review on March 14, 2008, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 5-7.]

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a court must review the administrative record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

V. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

Disability claims are evaluated using a five-step test:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

Step two: Does the claimant have a "severe" impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding ...


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