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Sanchez v. Astrue

January 21, 2010

CARMEN SANCHEZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosalyn M. Chapman United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Carmen Sanchez filed a complaint on December 3, 2008, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. On May 27, 2009, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on June 24, 2009.

BACKGROUND

On October 25, 2006, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 423, and the Supplemental Security Income program ("SSI") of Title XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a), claiming an inability to work since May 2, 2006, due to mental problems. Certified Administrative Record ("A.R.") 87-99, 124-25. The plaintiff's applications were initially denied on March 29, 2007, and were again denied on May 25, 2007, following reconsideration. A.R. 51-62. The plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Joseph D. Schloss ("the ALJ") on July 8, 2008. A.R. 19-46, 63. On August 14, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 5-17. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on September 26, 2008. A.R. 1-3.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine if substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's findings and whether the proper legal standards were used in reaching the decision. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009); Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). "In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, [this Court] must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001). "Where the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision, [this Court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 128 S.Ct. 1068 (2008); Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591.

The claimant 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). "The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability." Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1122 (1996); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process for the ALJ to follow in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, in the Second Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If so, in the Third Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If not, in the Fourth Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity despite the impairment or various limitations to perform her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If not, in Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.*fn1 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

Applying the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability. (Step One). The ALJ then found plaintiff has the severe impairments of a mood disorder not otherwise specified and an anti-social personality disorder (Step Two); however, plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a Listing. (Step Three). Finally, the ALJ determined plaintiff can perform her past relevant work as a legal secretary, data entry clerk and receptionist; therefore, she is not disabled. (Step Four).

II.

A claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is what she can still do despite her physical, mental, non-exertional, and other limitations. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 460 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009) (RFC is "a summary of what the claimant is capable of doing (for example, how much weight he can lift)."). Here, the ALJ found plaintiff "has the [RFC] to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels . . . [and she can perform] complex tasks but [she should] not . . . be responsible for any safety operations." A.R. 11. However, plaintiff contends this finding, as well as the Step Four determination, are not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed: to properly consider the opinions of Samuel E. Dey, M.D., a treating psychiatrist; did not properly address the side effects of her medications; and did not properly consider her husband's statement. There is no merit to these claims.

A. Dr. Dey's Opinion

The medical opinions of treating physicians are entitled to special weight because the treating physician "is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual." Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999). Therefore, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontroverted opinion of a treating physician, Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008); Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725, and "[e]ven if [a] treating doctor's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the ALJ may not reject this opinion without ...


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