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Mata v. Astrue

May 26, 2009

TERESA MATA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, 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 March 4, 2008, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). On March 21, 2008, 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 November 12, 2008, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, in the alternative, remanding the matter 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

On June 17, 2004, plaintiff filed an application for SSI. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 62-68.) Plaintiff alleges an inability to work since January 1, 2002, due to bronchial asthma, osteoarthritis, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, knee pain, joint pain, chest pain, memory loss, and loss of concentration. (A.R. 65, 73, 112.) Plaintiff, who has a sixth grade education obtained in Mexico, has past work experience as a tea packer, garment trimmer, and child care worker. (A.R. 74, 273.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (A.R. 47-51, 53-57.) On January 10, 2007, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel and aided by a Spanish language interpreter, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge F. Keith Varni ("ALJ"). (A.R. 58-59, 267-81.) On March 19, 2007, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim, and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review. (A.R. 5-7, 14-26.)

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff, who was 61 years old at the time of the hearing, has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 17, 2004. (A.R. 19.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffers from numerous medically determinable impairments, including "a history of a benign brain tumor (status post resection) and hemangioblastoma, a history of hydrocephalus, a history of asthma, and dysthymia." (Id.) The ALJ found that plaintiff's arthritis, degenerative joint disease, coronary artery disease, chest pain, and borderline intellectual functioning are not medically determinable impairments. (A.R. 19-20.)

The ALJ further found that plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that more than minimally limits (or is expected to more than minimally limit) her ability to perform basic work-related activities for twelve consecutive months; therefore, [plaintiff] does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments." (A.R. 20.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 17, 2004, the date her application was filed. (A.R. 25.)

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 a single issue: whether the ALJ erred in determining that plaintiff did not suffer from a severe mental impairment. For the reasons set forth below, the Court concludes that this issue can not be addressed appropriately until the record regarding the nature and extent ...


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