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Melkonian v. Astrue

April 21, 2009

CONSTANCE MELKONIAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge

ORDER (1) OVERRULING PLAINTIFF'S OBJECTIONS, (2) JUDGE'S REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION, (3) DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, and (4) GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ADOPTING MAGISTRATE

(Doc. Nos. 35, 57, & 64)

BACKGROUND

Constance Melkonian ("plaintiff") was found disabled as of May 28, 1986, her date of birth, and received supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits during her childhood for Tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia, a cardiac condition. Plaintiff had corrective surgery for the Tetralogy of Fallot in May 1989. Plaintiff was also diagnosed with scoliosis of the spine in 1992, and successfully underwent a spinal fusion in May 1997.

In the present action, plaintiff seeks declaratory, injunctive, and mandamus relief arising from the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") termination of the SSI benefits on September 1, 2003. Plaintiff objected to the SSA's decision and brought her case before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On June 18, 2005, the ALJ issued companion opinions-the first concluding that plaintiff lost eligibility for SSI benefits on May 1, 2000,*fn1 and the second concluding that plaintiff was ineligible for adult benefits. Plaintiff obtained review through the Appeals Council, which considered new evidence submitted by plaintiff and affirmed the ALJ's decision on May 25, 2006.

Plaintiff then initiated the present action in the Southern District of California on September 25, 2006 and amended the complaint on October 30, 2006. (Doc. No. 1.) The action was originally assigned to the Hon. Barry T. Moskowitz.*fn2 Judge Moskowitz granted the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") motion to dismiss all causes of action in the First Amended Complaint, except the claim for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision ceasing childhood benefits and denying adult benefits, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. No. 22.) Plaintiff appealed Judge Moskowitz's Order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 6, 2007 (Doc. No. 33), and, while the appeal was pending, plaintiff filed her motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 35). After the Ninth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction (Doc. No. 48), the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on February 1, 2008 (Doc. No. 57).

On July 25, 2008, Magistrate Judge Barbara Lynn Major issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") that this Court grant defendant's motion for summary judgment and deny plaintiff's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 64.) The R&R concluded the ALJ based his decision on substantial evidence, which was consistent with evidence that plaintiff submitted from the period following the administrative hearing. The R&R further rejected plaintiff's contention that the SSA "lied" about plaintiff's failure to appear for a medical consultation in 1998, reasoning that, inter alia, the issue was moot because the SSA subsequently allowed plaintiff to file for reconsideration and extended plaintiff's benefits until 2003.

Plaintiff filed her objections to the R&R on September 15, 2008. (Doc. No. 68.) The Commissioner replied to the objections on October 6, 2008 and urged the Court to adopt the R&R. (Doc. No. 69.)

LEGAL STANDARD

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court reviews de novo those portions of the Report to which either side objects, but no others. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 149 (1985); United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003). Unsuccessful applicants for SSI benefits may seek judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's decision to deny benefits will only be disturbed if it is not based on "substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error." Magallanes v. Brown, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The substantial evidence inquiry is solely whether the record, read as a whole, contains such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the ALJ's conclusions. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982); see also Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 509 (9th Cir. 2001) ("substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance"). If the evidence supports more than one interpretation, the Court must uphold the ALJ's decision. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). The ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence. Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. The Court may reverse the ALJ's decision and direct the Commissioner to award benefits, without remanding for additional evidence and findings, only if the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose. Such a circumstance arises when: (1) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the claimant's evidence; (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made; and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled if he considered the claimant's evidence.

McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076-77 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff has filed sixty-two (62) pages of objections. In large part, these objections consist of issues the Court cannot reach here. Plaintiff argues extensively in support of her federal constitutional claims (see Objections, at 43-47, 49-52) and her entitlement to monetary damages for the cost of her various surgeries (see id., at 13, 37, 58-60), even though Judge Moskowitz already dismissed those claims and the Ninth Circuit denied plaintiff's appeal for lack of jurisdiction. Plaintiff also asks the Court to weigh the evidence differently from the ALJ, but Ninth Circuit precedent requires this Court to affirm the ALJ's decision in the face of any conflicting evidence. See Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (citing, inter alia, Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)). Finally, plaintiff repeatedly insists the Court award disability benefits without remanding the case to the SSA (see Objections, at 4, 35, 39), but such a conclusion would require the Court to find that "further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose." McCartey, 298 F.3d at 1076. In fact, the Ninth Circuit has subsequently explained that McCartey allows the Court to remand to the ALJ to make credibility determinations regarding evidence that conflicts with the ALJ's conclusion. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 876 (9th Cir. 2003). The Court declines to exclude categorically the possibility of remand.

Many of plaintiff's objections also mirror the same arguments she has made throughout this litigation. The R&R responded to these arguments with thorough, careful analysis. The R&R reviewed the "substantial evidence" in support of the ALJ's findings that plaintiff's childhood SSI benefits were properly terminated, and that plaintiff was ineligible for adult SSI benefits. The R&R further reasoned that the ALJ's decision was not based on the purported "lies" of Mary Murillo, the SSA officer who conducted a hearing on plaintiff's request for reconsideration of cessation of benefits back in 2000. Finally, the R&R addressed the evidence plaintiff presented after her hearing before the ALJ, and explained why that evidence did not entitle plaintiff to eligibility for SSI benefits. The Court has reviewed the R&R's analysis de novo and concludes that "substantial evidence" supported the ALJ's decision to deny SSI benefits. If the Court were to respond to each of petitioner's individual ...


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