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Martinez v. Astrue

July 23, 2009

LYDIA MARTINEZ, 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 December 10, 2007, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). On August 6, 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 September 16, 2008, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, in the alternative, remanding the matter for a new administrative hearing; 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 AND DECISION

On January 26, 2005, plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 58-60.) Plaintiff alleges an inability to work since February 15, 2003, due to a back injury, lumbar disc disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, and a hernia. (A.R. 16, 43, 51, 89.) She has past relevant work experience as a housekeeper. (A.R. 16, 18, 69.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (A.R. 43-48, 51-56.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a timely written request for hearing, and on May 24, 2007, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Thomas J. Gaye ("ALJ"). (A.R. 57, 283-94.) On June 21, 2007, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim, and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision.*fn1 (A.R. 5-8, 13-19.)

In his written decision, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 15, 2003, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 15.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff suffers from "severe" low back pain, hypertension, and diabetes, but she does not have any impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. (Id.) The ALJ found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8 hour day, and sit 6 hours in an 8 hour day. (Id.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her subjective pain symptoms were not entirely credible. (A.R. 17-18.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since January 26, 2005, the date the application was filed. (A.R. 19.)

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 three issues: (1) whether the ALJ made proper credibility findings; (2) whether the ALJ properly considered the treating physician's opinion; and (3) whether the ALJ posed a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. (Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") at 2.)

I. The ALJ Failed To Provide The Requisite Clear And Convincing Reasons For Rejecting Plaintiff's Subjective Pain Testimony

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in his consideration of plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 2-4, 7.) For the ...


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