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Metcalf v. Astrue

March 31, 2010

TABITHA METCALF, 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 July 3, 2008, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). On December 8, 2008, 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 April 17, 2009, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, alternatively, remanding the case to the Commissioner for a new administrative hearing; 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, who was born on May 21, 1986, filed her application for SSI on January 30, 2006, alleging an inability to work since June 1, 2005, due to panic attacks, depression, and a disorder of the left knee. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 13, 95.) She has no past relevant work experience. (A.R. 17, 89-90.)

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim for benefits initially and upon reconsideration. (A.R. 52-56, 58-63.) On December 10, 2007, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Lowell Fortune ("ALJ"). (A.R. 19-49.) On January 31, 2008, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claims (A.R. 9-18), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (A.R. 2-4).

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 30, 2006, the date on which plaintiff filed her application for SSI. (A.R. 11.) The ALJ further found that plaintiff has the following "severe" impairments: a left knee disorder*fn1 ; an anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; and a depressive disorder, not otherwise specified. (Id.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work. (A.R. 12.) Specifically, the ALJ found that [plaintiff] can lift and/or carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. Out of an 8-hour period, she can stand and/or walk for 4 hours and sit for 6 hours. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps but cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. Nor can she walk on uneven terrain. Balancing, bending, and stooping can be done frequently. She can occasionally crouch and less than occasionally kneel. Mentally, [plaintiff] cannot perform safety operations, be responsible for the safety of others, or perform work requiring hypervigilence.

(Id.)

Based on the ALJ's RFC assessment and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. (A.R. 17.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since January 30, 2006, the date the application was filed. (A.R. 18.)

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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