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Sloan v. Astrue

December 21, 2009

GREGORY A. SLOAN, 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 November 18, 2008, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's applications for a period of disability ("POD"), disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and supplemental security income ("SSI"). On February 25, 2009, the parties consented to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on May 13, 2009, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, alternatively, remanding the case to the Commissioner for the correction of legal errors and factual deficiencies; and defendant asks that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed his applications for a POD, DIB, and SSI on September 6, 2006, alleging an inability to work since March 4, 2006, due to bipolar type II disorder and drug and alcohol addiction. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 88-89, 93-98, 105-111.) He has past relevant work experience as a nurse's assistant and a licensed practical nurse. (A.R. 107.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim for benefits initially and upon reconsideration. (A.R. 45-49, 51-55.) On March 10, 2008, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Sally C. Reason ("ALJ"). (A.R. 21-40.) On May 5, 2008, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claims (A.R. 13-20), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (A.R. 3-5).

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff met the disability insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through the date of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 19.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 20.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has "severe" impairments of bipolar type II and drug/alcohol abuse (in remission) but does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or equals in severity any impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of Regulation No. 4. (A.R. 20.)

The ALJ further found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") for work at all exertional levels, as limited "only to preclusion on jobs requiring frequent to continuing high-pressured negotiations with other people as a critical factor." (A.R. 20.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff's functional limitations did not preclude him from performing his past relevant work as a nurse's assistant and a licensed practical nurse. (Id.)

Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time through the date of the ALJ's decision. (A.R. 20.)

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.'" ...


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