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Zamorano v. Astrue

June 15, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

Plaintiff filed his present application for SSI benefits on December 6, 2004.*fn1 [JS 2]. Plaintiff alleged that he became disabled on December 20, 2003, the day after issuance of the prior, final administrative decision finding him "not disabled." [JS 2; Administrative Record ("AR") 11-12].

In a written hearing decision that constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner in this case, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of a depressive disorder, not otherwise specified ("NOS"), and a dependent personality disorder. [AR 14]. The ALJ further found that plaintiff's impairments left him with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") for work at any exertional level, with non-exertional impairments restricting him to moderately complex tasks with four to five steps in a habituated work setting that is object oriented. The claimant is precluded from safety operations and aggressive supervision. His environment should be low stress with no high production quota work or rapid assembly line work. His work environment should not have significant changes from day to day. [AR 14]. At step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's RFC did not preclude him from performing his past relevant work as a "yard person and as a carpet cleaner." [AR 21]. Alternatively, the ALJ found, at step five of the sequential evaluation, that plaintiff can perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. [See AR 21]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from December 20, 2003 through the date of his decision.

Statement of Disputed Issues

The disputed issues are whether the ALJ properly considered (1) the state agency physician's findings regarding plaintiff's moderate limitations; (2) the treating clinician's opinions regarding plaintiff's severe dysfunction rating; and (3) the type, dosage, and side effects of plaintiff's prescribed medications; and (4) whether the ALJ posed a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. [JS 2-3].

Standard of Review

The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)(internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Social Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir.1999)).


Presumption of continuing non-disability As a preliminary matter, the ALJ properly invoked the doctrine of res judicata with respect to the period through December 19, 2003, the date of the prior, final administrative decision denying benefits. [AR 11-12]. See Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 827 (9th Cir. 1995) (holding that res judicata barred reconsideration of claim for period with respect to which a final determination had already been made); Chavez v. Bowen, 844 F.2d 691, 693 (9th Cir. 1988) (noting that the principles of res judicata apply to administrative decisions). A final, binding determination of non-disability also gives rise to a presumption that the claimant continued to be able to work after the date of that determination. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 827; Lyle v. Sec'y of Health & Human Srvs., 700 F.2d 566, 567 (9th Cir. 1983). The presumption of continuing non-disability may be overcome by a showing of "changed circumstances," by new facts establishing a previously unlitigated impairment, or where the claimant's unrepresented status has resulted in an inadequate record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 827-828; Chavez, 844 F.2d at 693.

State Agency Physician's Findings

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ misstated, and failed properly to consider, a nonexamining state agency physician's findings that plaintiff is moderately limited in certain work-related mental functional abilities. [See JS 3-7].

Where the opinion of a treating or examining physician is uncontroverted, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons, supported by substantial evidence in the record, for rejecting it. If contradicted by that of another doctor, a treating or examining source opinion may be rejected for specific and legitimate reasons that are based on substantial evidence in the record. Batson v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, ...

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