Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Cline v. Astrue

July 16, 2009

ROBERT A. CLINE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abramsunited States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on April14, 2008, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on April 22, 2008, and April 28, 2008. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on December 18, 2008, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on October 24, 1947. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 68.] He has an eleventh grade education [AR at 76], and past relevant work experience as a security guard and construction laborer. [AR at 33, 78.]

On June 15, 2006, plaintiff filed his application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging that he has been unable to work since March 1, 2002, due to emphysema, kidney problems, and vision problems. [AR at 28, 72.] After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 35-39, 41-45, 46.] A hearing was held on November 14, 2007, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on his own behalf. Testimony was also received from plaintiff's wife, a medical expert, and a vocational expert. [AR at 8-22.] On December 12, 2007, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. [AR at 28-34.] Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision. [AR at 7.] The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 10, 2008. [AR at 3-5.] This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995, as amended April 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS

In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had "not engage[d] in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged onset date of March 1, 2002 through his date last insured of December 31, 2004." [AR at 30.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that, through the date last insured, plaintiff had the "severe" impairment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"). [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, plaintiff's impairment did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. [Id.] The ALJ further found that, through the date last insured, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 to perform a limited range of medium work. Specifically, the ALJ determined that plaintiff "could lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently"; "could stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8-hour work day with breaks every 2 hours"; "could sit for 6 hours out of an 8-hour work day"; and "was restricted to an air conditioned environment free of excessive inhaled pollutants, such as an office." [Id.] At step four, the ALJ concluded that, through the date last insured, plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a security guard as it is generally performed in the national economy. [AR at 33-34.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled at any time from March 1, 2002, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2004, the date last insured. [AR at 34.]

V. THE ALJ'S DECISION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to: (1) properly consider the treating physician's opinion regarding plaintiff's multiple functional limitations; (2) properly consider the treating physician's opinion regarding plaintiff's COPD; (3) fully and fairly develop the record regarding plaintiff's chronic kidney disease; (4) properly determine whether plaintiff met or equaled a Listing; (5) properly consider plaintiff's credibility; (6) properly consider lay witness testimony; and (7) pose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") at 2-3. As set forth below, the Court respectfully disagrees with plaintiff, and affirms the ALJ's decision.

A. TREATING PHYSICIAN'S OPINION

In evaluating medical opinions, the case law and regulations distinguish among the opinions of three types of physicians: (1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant (non-examining physicians). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.927; Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. As a general rule, the opinions of treating physicians are given greater weight than those of other physicians, because treating physicians are employed to cure and therefore have a greater opportunity to know and observe the claimant. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 751 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987)). Although the treating physician's opinion is entitled to great deference, it is not necessarily conclusive as to the question of disability. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751 (citing Rodriguez v. Bowen, 876 F.2d 759, 761-62 (9th Cir. 1989)).

"'The administrative law judge is not bound by the uncontroverted opinions of the claimant's physicians on the ultimate issue of disability, but he cannot reject them without presenting clear and convincing reasons for doing so.'" Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 680 (9th Cir. 1993) (quoting Montijo v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 729 F.2d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1984)); see also Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. Where the treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another physician, the ALJ may only reject the opinion of the treating physician if the ALJ provides specific and legitimate reasons for doing so that are based on substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 830; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d) (requiring that Social Security Administration "always give good reasons in [the] notice of determination or decision for the weight [given to the] treating source's opinion"); Social Security Ruling*fn2 96-2p ("the notice of the determination or decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the adjudicator gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.").

1. Dr. Timothy Hantz

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of treating physician Dr. Timothy Hantz. Joint Stip. at 3-4. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Hantz's ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.