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Prickett v. Astrue

April 20, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Anne Marie Prickett seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") is affirmed.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born on October 24, 1961. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 33.) She has a GED with no additional formal educational or vocational training. (AR at 24.) Plaintiff was previously employed as a cashier. (AR at 135.) Plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits on January 26, 2006, alleging that she has been disabled since October 1, 2001, as a result of bipolar disorder with psychotic feelings and skin cancer. (AR at 120, 137.)

Plaintiff's application was denied initially on April 27, 2006, and upon reconsideration on December 15, 2006. (AR at 58-62, 65-69.) An administrative hearing was held on October 22, 2008, before ALJ Jay E. Levine at which Plaintiff was represented by attorney Lee Condo. (AR at 18-47.) Plaintiff testified at the hearing (AR at 21-40), as did Vocational Expert ("VE") Troy Scott (AR at 44-45).

On June 12, 2009, ALJ Levine denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (AR at 5-17.) The ALJ found that the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue. (AR at 10.) The ALJ further found that, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 416.920(c), the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bipolar disorder, and a history of polysubstance abuse in remission. (Id.) However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet, or were not medically equal to, one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the "residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c), except the claimant is precluded from working at heights and on dangerous machinery; she should work in a clean air environment; she can do entry level work but should work with things rather than people and she is precluded from fast paced work." (AR at 11.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work. (AR at 16.) However, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform (20 C.F.R. 416.960(c), 416.966), such as dishwasher, house cleaner, and dry cleaning work. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

On August 22, 2009, the Appeals Council denied review (AR at 1-3) and Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review. On April 13, 2010, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stp.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to properly consider the rating of functional limitations assessed by the State Agency physician; (2) failing to properly consider the State Agency findings from the mental residual functional capacity assessment; (3) failing to rely upon substantial evidence in determining Plaintiff's mental impairments; and (4) failing to pose a complete hypothetical to the VE. (Joint Stp. at 2-3.) Plaintiff seeks a reversal of the Commissioner's denial of her application and payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for a new administrative hearing. (Joint Stp. at 18.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stp. at 19.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's or ALJ's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1990); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing 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. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Discussion

A. The ALJ Properly Considered the State Agency Physician's Report

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly disregarded the report of Dr. H. Amado, one of the reviewing State Agency physicians. (Joint Stp. at 3-4). More specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by failing to address certain functional limitations found by Dr. Amado. (Id.) In the section of the Mental Residual Functional Capacity ("MRFC") form entitled "Rating of Functional Limitations," Dr. Amado found that Plaintiff had a moderate degree of limitation in the areas of activities of daily living, maintaining social functioning, and in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (AR at 246.)

The ALJ properly analyzed the entire medical record and concluded that Plaintiff retained the RFC to do most entry level work. (AR at 11, 16.) This finding was supported by the opinion of the consultative examiner, Dr. Charlene K. Krieg, Ph.D. On February 2, 2009, Dr. Krieg reviewed Plaintiff's medical records, examined Plaintiff, and administered various psychological tests. (AR at 410-415.) Dr. Krieg concluded that, as long as Plaintiff was compliant with medication and treatment for her depressive disorder and did not abuse drugs or alcohol, there was "no impairment that would interfere with her ability to complete a normal workday or workweek." (AR at 415.) The ALJ gave the "greatest weight" to the report of the consultative examiner, Dr. Krieg, as she "was able to review the medical records, as well as interview, observe, test and perform a mental status evaluation on the claimant." (AR at 15, 410-418.) The ALJ properly relied on the report of the consultative examiner. It is the responsibility of the ALJ to resolve conflicts and ambiguities in the medical record and determine the credibility of medical sources. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1989).

Further, the ALJ properly relied on the opinions of the State Agency physicians, which the ALJ found were consistent with the conclusion of the consultative examiner, Dr. Krieg. (AR at 15.) Each of the three reviewing State Agency physicians, including Dr. Amado, determined that Plaintiff did not have any significant impairment which would preclude her from working. (AR at 232-249, 294, 295.) A non-examining physician's opinion can constitute substantial evidence when ...

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