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Alvarez v. Astrue

August 14, 2009

ARTURO ALVAREZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sandra M. Snyder United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S SOCIAL SECURITY COMPLAINT (DOC. 2) ORDER DIRECTING THE ENTRY OF JUDGMENT FOR DEFENDANT MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, AND AGAINST PLAINTIFF ARTURO ALVAREZ

Plaintiff is proceeding in forma pauperis and with counsel with an action seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying Plaintiff's application of December 7, 2005, for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in which he had claimed to have been disabled since January 1, 2002, due to phobia, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and chest pain. (A.R. 69, 93-94, 112.) The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), and pursuant to the order of Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill filed September 18, 2008, the matter has been assigned to the Magistrate Judge to conduct all further proceedings in this case, including entry of final judgment.

The decision under review is that of Social Security Administration (SSA) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Bert C. Hoffman, Jr., dated January 24, 2008 (A.R. 10-16), rendered after a hearing held November 13, 2007, at which Plaintiff appeared and testified with the assistance of counsel (A.R. 10, 241-76). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 25, 2008 (A.R. 2-4), and thereafter Plaintiff filed his complaint in this Court on August 13, 2008. Briefing commenced on April 1, 2009, and was completed with the filing of Plaintiff's reply on May 12, 2009. The matter has been submitted without oral argument to the undersigned Magistrate Judge.

I. Standard and Scope of Review

Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits under the Act. In reviewing findings of fact with respect to such determinations, the Court must determine whether the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla," Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971), but less than a preponderance, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119, n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975). It is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion; it may not simply isolate a portion of evidence that supports the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).

It is immaterial that the evidence would support a finding contrary to that reached by the Commissioner; the determination of the Commissioner as to a factual matter will stand if supported by substantial evidence because it is the Commissioner's job, and not the Court's, to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 (9th Cir. 1975).

In weighing the evidence and making findings, the Commissioner must apply the proper legal standards. Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988). This Court must review the whole record and uphold the Commissioner's determination that the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards, and if the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See, Sanchez v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d at 995. If the Court concludes that the ALJ did not use the proper legal standard, the matter will be remanded to permit application of the appropriate standard. Cooper v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 557, 561 (9th Cir. 1987).

II. Disability

A. Legal Standards

In order to qualify for benefits, a claimant must establish that she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant must demonstrate a physical or mental impairment of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do the claimant's previous work, but cannot, considering age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. 1382c(a)(3)(B); Quang Van Han v. Bowen, 882 F.2d 1453, 1456 (9th Cir. 1989). The burden of establishing a disability is initially on the claimant, who must prove that the claimant is unable to return to his or her former type of work; the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to identify other jobs that the claimant is capable of performing considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, as well as her age, education and last fifteen years of work experience. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990).

The regulations provide that the ALJ must make specific sequential determinations in the process of evaluating a disability: 1) whether the applicant engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged date of the onset of the impairment, 2) whether solely on the basis of the medical evidence the claimed impairment is severe, that is, of a magnitude sufficient to limit significantly the individual's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities; 3) whether solely on the basis of medical evidence the impairment equals or exceeds in severity certain impairments described in Appendix I of the regulations; 4) whether the applicant has sufficient residual functional capacity, defined as what an individual can still do despite limitations, to perform the applicant's past work; and 5) whether on the basis of the applicant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the applicant can perform any other gainful and substantial work within the economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

B. The ALJ's Findings

Relying on the diagnoses of treating physician Dr. R. Ensom of August 2007, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had serious impairments of schizophrenia, paranoid type, and dysthymic disorder that did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. (A.R. 12, 118.) Plaintiff had moderate restrictions in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with non-exertional limitations of moderate limitation in understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed instructions, but with the ability to perform at least simple, repetitive tasks, relate adequately with other people, and adapt adequately to work routines. (A.R. 12-15.) Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations had little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled work, the basic mental demands of which were to perform simple tasks, respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers, and deal with changes in a routine work setting. Considering Plaintiff's age (twenty years old at the time the application was filed), education (at least a high school education), work experience (no past relevant work), and RFC, Plaintiff could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (A.R. 15-16.)

III. Credibility Findings

A. Legal Standards

Unless there is affirmative evidence that the applicant is malingering, then where the record includes objective medical evidence establishing that the claimant suffers from an impairment that could reasonably produce the symptoms of which the applicant complains, an adverse credibility finding must be based on clear and convincing reasons. Carmickle v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration,, 533 F.3d 1155, 1160 (9th Cir. 2008). In Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 635 (9th Cir. 2007), the Court summarized the appropriate factors or reasons considered in determining credibility:

Social Security Administration rulings specify the proper bases for rejection of a claimant's testimony.

See S.S.R. 02-1p (Cum. Ed.2002), available at Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II and XVI: Evaluation of Obesity, 67 Fed.Reg. 57,859-02 (Sept. 12, 2002); S.S.R. 96-7p (Cum. Ed.1996), available at 61 Fed.Reg. 34,483-01 (July 2, 1996). An ALJ's decision to reject a claimant's testimony cannot be supported by reasons that do not comport with the agency's rules. See 67 Fed.Reg. at 57860 ("Although Social Security Rulings do not have the same force and effect as the statute or regulations, they are binding on all components of the Social Security Administration, ... and are to be relied upon as precedents in adjudicating cases."); see Daniels v. Apfel, 154 F.3d 1129, 1131 (10th Cir.1998) (concluding that ALJ's decision at step three of the disability determination was contrary to agency regulations and rulings and therefore warranted remand). Factors that an ALJ may consider in weighing a claimant's credibility include reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies in testimony or between testimony and conduct, daily activities, and "unexplained, or inadequately explained, failure to seek treatment or follow a prescribed course of treatment." Fair, 885 F.2d at 603; see also Thomas, 278 F.3d at 958-59.

B. Analysis

The ALJ referred to the opinions of Plaintiff's mother and sibling as well as to Plaintiff's testimony regarding his markedly limiting mental symptoms, problems with interacting appropriately with others, and persistent nervousness. (A.R. 14.) Plaintiff had testified that he did not like seeing people; suffered depression twice a week that was precipitated by the behavior of his twin brother, who was anti-social and who interacted violently with Plaintiff's mother; the depression caused Plaintiff to cry weekly, lose interest in activities, and be nervous, but it was improved by Plaintiff's doing things such as biking or using the computer. Plaintiff had taken medications, Abilify and Lexapro, for two years,*fn1 and he found that the ...


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