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Franklin v. Astrue

March 5, 2009

LUVELLA FRANKLIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margaret A. Nagle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed a Complaint on October 9, 2007, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for Disabled Widow's Benefits. On November 16, 2007, the parties consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on June 25, 2008, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, in the alternative, remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings; and defendant seeks an order affirming the Commissioner's decision. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

On November 4, 2002, plaintiff's husband passed away, and on November 2, 2004, plaintiff filed an application for benefits as a disabled widow. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 61-62.) Plaintiff alleges an inability to work since January 1, 1992, due to carpal tunnel syndrome post-surgery in both wrists. (A.R. 61-62, 198.) Plaintiff last worked as a parking ticket processing clerk in 1991. (A.R. 60, 197.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application initially (A.R. 53), and on May 27, 2005, plaintiff requested a hearing on her claim (A.R. 51). On September 11, 2006, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Dale A. Garwal ("ALJ"). (A.R. 193-213.) On September 29, 2006, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim, and the Appeals Counsel subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 22-30, 5-7.)

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

In his written decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset of her alleged disability. (A.R. 28.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff has no past relevant work history, is closely approaching advanced age, and has more than a high school (or high school equivalent) education. (A.R. 29.) While plaintiff's impairments of hypertension and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome post surgery on both wrists are considered "severe," they do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. (A.R. 28-29.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff's allegations regarding her limitations are "not totally credible." (A.R. 29.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a significant range of light exertional level work. (A.R. 29.) Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff is able to: lift/carry and push/pull no more than ten pounds; stand/walk for no more than six hours in an eight-hour workday; sit for no more than six hours in an eight-hour workday; and frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. (Id.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff: should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold; has no other environmental limitations; and has no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations. (Id.)

Based on the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment and testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ found that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, such as a cashier II and assembly worker. (A.R. 29.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not under a disability at any time through the date of his decision. (Id.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those "'reasonably drawn from the record'" will suffice. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted).

Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett, 340 F.3d at 874. The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was 'inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination.'" ...


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