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Rougeau v. Astrue

March 31, 2009

CHRISTINA ROUGEAU, 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 August 7, 2007, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of her application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). On August 31, 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 May 6, 2008, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding the case for the payment of benefits or, in the alternative, for the correction of legal errors; 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

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on April 27, 2005. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 51-52.) Plaintiff claims to have been disabled since March 1, 1993, due to: diabetes; pain in her back, feet, and legs; migraine headaches; and hypertension. (A.R. 19-20, 34, 55, 61.) She has past relevant work experience as a certified nurse assistant and babysitter. (A.R. 19, 22, 62, 370-71.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially on July 14, 2005, and upon reconsideration on October 27, 2005. (A.R. 30-31, 34-38, 41-46.) Plaintiff filed a timely written request for hearing, and on September 5, 2006, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Walter J. Fisher ("ALJ"). (A.R. 47, 368-91.) On October 26, 2006, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim, and on June 20, 2007, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 18-23, 5-7.)

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from severe impairments of diabetes, peripheral neuropathy, blurry vision, hypertension, anemia, obesity, and degenerative joint disease. (A.R. 20.) The ALJ rejected the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician, Peter Chau, M.D., regarding plaintiff's limitations, because "Dr. Chau's opinion is not supported by any of Dr. Chau's treatment notes or any of the other objective evidence." (Id.) The ALJ further found that, "[plaintiff's] medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to produce some of the alleged symptoms, but that her statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible." (A.R. 21.)

The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform some "sedentary exertional-level work." (A.R. 20, 23.)*fn1 Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (A.R. 22.) Relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, and based on the ALJ's RFC assessment, as well as plaintiff's classification as a "younger individual" with a "limited or less" education, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled at anytime since April 28, 2005, the date her application for SSI benefits was filed. (A.R. 23.)

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.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006)(quoting Stout v. Comm'r, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055-56 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch, 400 F.3d at 679.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges the following two issues: (1) whether the ALJ evaluated plaintiff's treating physician's opinion properly; and (2) whether the ALJ evaluated plaintiff's testimony ...


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