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Gallegos v. Astrue

January 20, 2010

LINDA GALLEGOS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VICTOR B. Kenton United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

(Social Security Case)

This matter is before the Court for review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for disability benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §636(c), the parties have consented that the case may be handled by the Magistrate Judge. 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 parties have filed the Joint Stipulation ("JS"), and the Commissioner has filed the certified Administrative Record ("AR").

Plaintiff raises the following issues:

1. Whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered Plaintiff's obesity;

2. Whether the ALJ properly represented the evidence and properly considered the adverse side effects of Plaintiff's medications;

3. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's testimony and made proper credibility findings; and

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

(JS at 2-3.)

This Memorandum Opinion will constitute the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. After reviewing the matter, the Court concludes that the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

I. THE ALJ DID NOT ERR IN FAILING TO SPECIFICALLY DISCUSS ANY IMPACT OF PLAINTIFF'S OBESITY

Based on a treatment note of October 22, 2007, indicating that Plaintiff has a body mass index ("BMI") of 31 (AT 262), Plaintiff asserts that she suffers from obesity. (JS at 3.) The Commissioner does not dispute that Plaintiff meets this criterion. The dispute set forth in the first issue is whether or not the ALJ erred by failing to specifically discuss Plaintiff's obesity. Plaintiff asserts that error was committed, because it was required that the ALJ discuss the effects of Plaintiff's obesity on her other impairments, such as COPD and asthma. Citing the Ninth Circuit opinion in Celaya v. Halter, 332 F.3d 1177, 1181 (9th Cir. 2003), and the requirements of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 02-01p, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ was required to specifically discuss the impact of obesity on her severe impairments.

Based on amendments to the regulations enacted in 1999, a diagnosis of obesity no longer imports a presumption of disability. (See SSR 02-01p.) Further, Plaintiff's interpretation of the holding of Celaya v. Halter is incorrect, in that it is only required that a discussion of the effects of a claimant's obesity must occur if there is evidence of its impact upon a claimant's health. (See Celaya, 332 F.3d 1177, 1181 n.1.)

The Circuit's later decision in Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676 (9th Cir. 2005) eliminates any possible ambiguity in this regard. Where there is no evidence that a claimant's obesity exacerbates other impairments, the ALJ does not commit reversible error by not considering obesity at Step Two in the sequential evaluation process (e.g., the determination of whether or not a claimant has a severe impairment). Further, in a case in which obesity is not a severe impairment, the ALJ is not required to make an equivalence analysis at Step Three. ("An ALJ is not required to discuss the combined effects of a claimant's impairments or compare them ...


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