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Thornton v. Astrue

November 5, 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 the 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.


The parties are familiar with the procedural history of this case, which is summarized in the Joint Stipulation. [See JS 2]. Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on August 1, 2003, alleging that he became disabled on December 1, 2001. Following an administrative hearing in October 2006, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a partially favorable decision finding plaintiff disabled beginning on September 1, 2005. In the process of calculating plaintiff's SSI benefits, a determination was made that plaintiff was cohabiting with his wife during the period from September 1, 2005 through January 31, 2007, and that her income rendered plaintiff ineligible to receive SSI benefits during that period. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1100-1160 (setting forth income and other eligibility requirements for SSI benefits). After plaintiff's request for reconsideration was denied, plaintiff requested and received an administrative hearing before a different ALJ. Plaintiff appeared during the hearing without a representative and testified in his own behalf. [AR 160-190].

In a written hearing decision dated May 25, 2007, the ALJ found that (1) plaintiff lived with his wife, Patricia Thornton, from September 1, 2005 through January 31, 2007; (2) Ms. Thornton's income was "deemed to [plaintiff] during the relevant time frame"; (3) plaintiff "was not a credible witness for the reasons set forth in this decision"; and (4) Ms. Thornton's income rendered plaintiff ineligible for SSI benefits from September 1, 2005 through January 31, 2007. [AR 17]. The Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review and issued a new decision. The Appeals Council incorporated by reference the ALJ's evaluation of the evidence and findings, discussed additional evidence, and, like the ALJ, found that Ms. Thornton's income was "deemed to [plaintiff]" and rendered him ineligible for SSI benefits during the period from September 1, 2005 through January 31, 2007. [See JS 2; AR 9-10, 14-18, 157-159].

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)).


Credibility evaluation

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected his testimony that he did not live with his wife during the relevant period. [See JS 3-11].

In a section of his decision incorporated into the Appeals Council's decision, the ALJ wrote that plaintiff testified he began receiving [SSI benefits] in March 2007. He stated that he has not lived in his wife's house at 15058 Bonanza Road in Victorville, CA; he has just used her address as his mailing address. He also used her father's address... as a mailing address. He has lived with a friend in a trailer, and he has lived in his van. Using his wife's address and her father's address was more convenient for the claimant in order to receive mail and pick up his children. The claimant has lived in his van, on and off for 18 years....

The claimant further testified that he is not divorced from Patricia [Thornton], but she left him in 1991 and filed for divorce. The claimant did not respond to the divorce papers, and both of them thought they were divorced until 2002. The claimant said Patricia never asked for a default.... The claimant made out divorce papers in 2004, but he did not file them until 2007. The claimant went to court in 2006 to have his child support payments stopped.

The claimant told the judge he had moved back home with Patricia, but he did not. He said he had requested Patricia appear with him at the [social security] hearing, but she did not want to take time off from work. [AR 15-16].

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not a credible witness. He observed that plaintiff told Judge Anderson, the state court judge presiding over plaintiff's child support hearing, that he was living with his wife and their minor child in the same home. The claimant either told the truth when he said they resided in the same home; or he committed perjury -- a crime in itself -- or made a material representation to a state [court] judge so that he would not have to make ...

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