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Box v. Astrue

January 7, 2010

CYNTHIA BOX, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John E. Mcdermott United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER PROCEEDINGS

On October 2, 2008, Cynthia Box ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on February 11, 2009. On August 28, 2009, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). The matter is now ready for decision.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

BACKGROUND

On February 7, 2000, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 393.) In May 2000, Plaintiff was deemed disabled since February 1, 2000 due to mental impairments that met Listing level criteria. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff had the medically determinable mental impairments of schizophrenic, paranoid, or other psychotic disorder, which met the requirements of Listing 12.03 A and B. (AR 395.)

In a continuing disability review in 2004, Claimant was determined to have experienced medical improvement and her benefits were terminated on October 1, 2004. (AR 393.) Claimant timely requested a hearing which was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") F. Keith Varni on June 14, 2005. (AR 13.) Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing but was not represented by counsel. (Id.) Her representative payee Ruben Gonzalez also testified, as did vocational expert Sandra Moore Fioretti. (Id.) The ALJ issued a decision on November 28, 2005, upholding the cessation of benefits based on medical improvement. (AR 13-27.) On May 6, 2006, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision. (JS 2.)

Plaintiff filed this action with the District Court. On September 24, 2007, the District Court vacated and remanded the ALJ's decision for further proceedings. (AR 422-41.) The Court based its remand on the ALJ's failure to develop the record fully and fairly. (AR 438-39.) There was no ruling on the merits of any substantive issue. Pursuant to the remand order, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to offer Claimant the opportunity for a hearing and take further action to develop the record. (AR 420.)

Subsequently, Claimant appeared and testified at a hearing on June 13, 2008, before the ALJ. (AR 393.) Claimant was represented by counsel. (Id.) Vocational expert Joseph M. Mooney also testified. (Id.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 11, 2008. (AR 393-407.)

DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the disputed issues that Plaintiff is raising as grounds for reversal and remand are as follows:

1. Whether the ALJ appropriately complied with the remand order to develop the record fully and fairly.

2. Whether the ALJ properly considered the type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of Plaintiff's medications.

3. Whether the ALJ properly considered the treating psychiatrist's opinion.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence means "'more than a mere scintilla' but less than a preponderance." Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotations and citations omitted). This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

DISCUSSION

The ALJ's determination that Plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error.

A. The Legal Standards Regarding Medical Improvement

An individual is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Act if she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to an impairment which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). "Once a claimant has been found to be disabled, . . . a presumption of continuing disability arises in her favor[, and the Commissioner] bears the burden of producing evidence sufficient to rebut this presumption of continuing disability." Bellamy v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 755 F.2d 1380, 1381 (9th Cir. 1985); see also Murray v. Heckler, ...


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