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Hall v. Astrue

April 15, 2010

TODD HALL, 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 Todd Hall filed a complaint on January 26, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for disability benefits. On June 16, 2009, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on July 27, 2009.

BACKGROUND

On September 6, 2006, plaintiff, who was born on January 20, 1966, applied for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program of Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), claiming an inability to work since February 1, 2005, due to neuropathy in his legs and feet, strokes, diabetes, a tracheal stent, and left hip pain. Certified Administrative Record ("A.R.") 87-89, 100. The plaintiff's application was initially denied on January 17, 2007, and was denied again on April 13, 2007, following reconsideration. A.R. 40-52. The plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Charles E. Stevenson ("the ALJ") on May 13, 2008. A.R. 19-37, 58. On September 17, 2008, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding plaintiff was disabled from February 1, 2005, to April 2, 2006, but not thereafter. A.R. 5-18. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on November 24, 2008. A.R. 1-4.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine if his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal standards in reaching his 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, 552 U.S. 1141 (2008); Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591.

The claimant is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Act if he 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). "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. § 416.920. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 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 him from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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 his past work. 20 C.F.R. § 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. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). Moreover, where there is evidence of a mental impairment that may prevent a claimant from working, the Commissioner has supplemented the five-step sequential evaluation process with additional regulations addressing mental impairments.*fn1 Maier v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 154 F.3d 913, 914-15 (9th Cir. 1998) (per curiam).

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity between February 1, 2005, and April 1, 2006. (Step One). The ALJ then found plaintiff "is status post[-]tracheal stent placement, has a loss of his spleen due to an accident, has diabetes with neuropathy and a history of ketoacidosis which in combination are severe"; however, he does not have a severe mental impairment. (Step Two). The ALJ next determined that from February 1, 2005, through April 1, 2006, plaintiff's impairments medically equaled a Listing; however, he experienced medical improvement as of April 2, 2006, and he has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a Listing since then. (Step Three). The ALJ then found that, as of April 2, 2006, plaintiff remained unable to perform his past relevant work. (Step Four). Finally, the ALJ concluded that since April 2, 2006, plaintiff is able to perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy; therefore, he is not disabled. (Step Five).

II.

The Step Two inquiry is "a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1290; Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court has recognized that including a severity requirement at Step Two of the sequential evaluation process "increases the efficiency and reliability of the evaluation process by identifying at an early stage those claimants whose medical impairments are so slight that it is unlikely they would be found to be disabled even if their age, education, and experience were taken into account." Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2297, 96 L.Ed. 2d 119 (1987). However, an overly stringent application of the severity requirement violates the Act by denying benefits to claimants who meet the statutory definition of disabled. Corrao v. Shalala, 20 F.3d 943, 949 (9th Cir. 1994).

A severe impairment or combination of impairments within the meaning of Step Two exists when there is more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to do basic work activities. Webb, 433 F.3d at 686; Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 460 (9th Cir. 2001); see also 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.921(a) ("An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit [a person's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities."). Basic work activities are "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs," including physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying or handling, as well as the capacity for seeing, hearing and speaking, understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple ...


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