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Moseley v. Astrue

February 23, 2010

KAY MOSELEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abrams United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on September 23, 2008, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on November 19, 2008, and December 4, 2008. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on May 26, 2009, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on April 3, 1952. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 88.] She has a college education during which she received her vocational nursing certificate [AR at 112, 609], and has past relevant work experience as a licenced vocational nurse. [AR at 103-05, 107-08.]

Plaintiff filed her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments on July 13, 2004, alleging that she has been unable to work since June 24, 2004,*fn1 due to, among other things, pain and stiffness in her arms and hands. [AR at 88-90, 106-13.] After plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 70-75, 77-83.] A hearing was held on September 21, 2006, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on her own behalf. A vocational expert also testified. [AR at 603-38.] On December 6, 2006, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. [AR at 46-56.] On March 15, 2007, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. [AR at 40-45.] A second hearing was held on May 15, 2008, at which plaintiff again appeared with counsel and testified on her own behalf. A vocational expert also testified. [AR at 639-74.] On June 20, 2008, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision. [AR at 13-25.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on August 29, 2008, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [AR at 7-11.] This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or 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); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995, as amended April 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of nondisability is made and the claim is denied. Id.

If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because she can perform ...


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