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Watts v. Astrue

May 6, 2010

MARY WATTS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John E. Mcdermott United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY PROCEEDINGS

On April 9, 2009, Mary Watts ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on July 20, 2009. On October 15, 2009, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). The matter is now ready for decision.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.

BACKGROUND

On July 19, 2005, Plaintiff Mary Watts filed an application for Disability Insurance and/or SSI benefits. (AR 19.) She is a 54 year old woman who has the medically determinable impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral spine, degenerative joint disease of the knees, obesity, hypertension, and asthma. (AR 22, 106.) She has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2004, the alleged onset date. (AR 22.)

Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on August 26, 2005, and subsequently on August 20, 2007, by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") London R. Steverson. (AR 19.) The ALJ ruled that the Claimant was not disabled because she had the residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 to perform a wide range of light work. (AR 39.)

ALJ Steverson accepted the RFC assessment of the consultative orthopedist, Dr. Herbert Johnson. (AR 19.) The ALJ, however, did not accept Dr. Johnson's opinion that Claimant required a "sit/stand" option. (AR 19.) Without consulting a vocational expert, the ALJ found that the non-exertional limitations that were established had little or no effect on the light, unskilled job base. (AR 19.)

On December 18, 2007, the Appeals Council remanded the case. (AR 19.) In its Order, the Appeals Council held that there was no convincing evidence to support the acceptance of the RFC of Dr. Johnson but not his "sit/stand option." (AR 39.) The Appeals Council directed the ALJ on remand to obtain evidence from a vocational expert to "clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on the claimant's occupational base (Social Security Ruling 83-14)." (AR 40.)

On remand, a hearing was held on June 3, 2008, in Pasadena, California before ALJ Richard A. Urbin. (AR 20.) Vocational expert Jane Haile testified at the hearing. (AR 20.) Claimant was represented by counsel. (AR 20.)

The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on June 25, 2008. (AR 19-29.) The ALJ accepted Dr. Johnson's sit/stand option. (AR 26.) Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that, even after considering the extent to which the sit/stand limitation eroded the unskilled light occupational base, there were still significant numbers of available jobs in the national economy for someone with Claimant's individual characteristics. (AR 28.) Therefore, the ALJ made a finding of "not disabled" and concluded that Claimant has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act since December 31, 2004. (AR 28.)

DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the only disputed issue that Plaintiff is raising as grounds for reversal and remand is as follows:

1. Whether the ALJ properly utilized the Social Security Administration's Medical Vocational Guidelines ("Guidelines" or "grids") as a framework for decisionmaking pursuant to 20 CFR § 416.969a(d) and Social Security Ruling 83-14?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence means "'more than a mere scintilla' but less than a preponderance." Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotations and citations omitted). This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of ...


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