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Gray v. Astrue

July 30, 2009

CAROLYN GRAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stephen J. Hillman United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

This matter is before the Court for review of the Decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 400 et seq. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the undersigned. The action arises under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which authorizes the Court to enter judgment upon the pleadings and transcript of the record before the Commissioner. The plaintiff and the defendant have filed their pleadings, and the defendant has filed the certified transcript of record. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the Decision of the Commissioner should be affirmed.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Carolyn Gray has filed seven applications for SSI. Plaintiff's fourth and fifth applications, dated September 15, 1995 and March 31, 2001, were granted based on a schizoaffective disorder and a bone fracture, but benefits were subsequently terminated based on residence in a penal institution or other public institution. On July 23, 2003, plaintiff filed her sixth application for SSI, alleging that she became disabled on January 1, 1992, due to paranoia, nervousness, panic attacks, and a bilateral hand injury. (Administrative Record ("AR") 13). Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and again upon reconsideration. Thereafter, plaintiff filed an untimely request for hearing to review the denial of her application for SSI, but established good cause for the late filing. She was afforded a hearing before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Mason Harrell Jr. on June 16, 2005. (AR 374-404). ALJ Harrell issued an unfavorable Decision on November 4, 2005 and found that plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act since July 23, 2003, the date the application was filed. (AR 12-20). ALJ Harrell also found that plaintiff's medically determinable impairments consisting of a schizoaffective disorder and a swan neck deformity of the left long finger with mild ulnar deviation of the proximal interphalangeal joint did not preclude her from performing simple, repetitive tasks, as well as medium work that did not require fine manipulation, and no more than occasional gross manipulation, with the left hand. (AR 19-20).

On June 4, 2007, the District Court reversed and remanded the Decision for further development regarding plaintiff's subjective limitations. (AR 497-502). Given the remand, the seventh application, dated November 21, 2005, is a duplicate application. (AR 408, 433). After a hearing before ALJ Richard A.

Urbin on June 9, 2008, ALJ Urbin developed the record as ordered by this Court and found plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time since July 22, 2003, in a de novo decision dated June 26, 2008. (AR 405-17).

On June 27, 2008, plaintiff filed a Request for Review of the Hearing Decision. After the Appeals Council denied review of the decision, plaintiff filed this action.

Plaintiff makes three challenges to the ALJ's determination. Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred by failing: (1) to properly consider "treating physician" Dr. Mehar Gill's opinion regarding plaintiff's psychosis, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations and GAF score of 15; (2) to properly consider testimony of lay witnesses Lanisha Tillman and Timothy Moore; (3) to properly pose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. Each of plaintiff's contentions will be addressed in turn.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review 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 must be more than a mere scintilla, but not necessarily a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003).

The Court cannot disturb the Commissioner's findings if those findings are supported by substantial evidence, even though other evidence may exist which supports plaintiff's claim. See Torske v. Richardson, 484 F.2d 59, 60 (9th Cir. 1973), cert. denied, Torske v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 933 (1974); Harvey v. Richardson, 451 F.2d 589, 590 (9th Cir. 1971). Furthermore, the Court may not affirm the ALJ's decision "simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989).

A person is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits if the person is "unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability. Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing Galant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1452).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a person is disabled. First, it is determined whether the person is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, disability benefits are denied. Second, if the person is not so engaged, it is determined whether the person has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. If the person does not have a severe impairment, it is determined whether the impairment meets or equals one of a number of "listed impairments." If the impairments meet or equal a "listed impairment," the person is conclusively presumed to be disabled. Fourth, if the impairment does not meet or equal the "listed impairments," it is determined whether the impairment prevents the person from performing past relevant work. If the person can perform past relevant work, benefits are denied. Fifth, ...


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