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Mitchell v. Astrue

May 14, 2010

LOUIS MITCHELL, SR., 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 July 20, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on August 21, 2009, and August 27, 2009. Pursuant to the Court's order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on January 6, 2010, 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 June 6, 1951. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 54, 648.] He has completed two years of college, and has past relevant work experience as a janitor, laborer, and pool installer. [AR at 103, 108, 115-18.]

Plaintiff filed his application for Disability Insurance Benefits on December 3, 2001,*fn1 alleging that he has been unable to work since September 17, 2001, due to hepatitis C and problems with his legs, back, and liver. [AR at 92-94, 101-14.] After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 74-84.] A hearing was held on March 10, 2003, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on his own behalf. A medical expert and a vocational expert also testified. [AR at 26-53.] On April 14, 2003, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. [AR at 9-20.] On May 29, 2003, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision. [AR at 4-7.] Plaintiff then filed an action in District Court, Case No. ED CV 03-851-CW, challenging the Commissioner's decision. On November 7, 2005, the Court remanded the matter for further proceedings. [AR at 359-72.] Pursuant to the Court's order, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ on April 22, 2006. [AR at 358.] A second administrative hearing was held on July 7, 2006, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and two medical experts and a vocational expert testified. [AR at 373-99.] On February 13, 2007, the ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision, again finding plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 335-51.] Plaintiff then filed a second action in District Court, Case No. ED CV 07-532-PLA. On November 19, 2007, the Court approved the parties' stipulation for a voluntary remand of the action, and on March 31, 2008, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further proceedings. [AR at 449-57.] A third administrative hearing was held on January 20, 2009, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and again testified on his own behalf. A vocational expert also testified. [AR at 688-709.] On March 9, 2009, the ALJ issued a third unfavorable decision, again finding plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 418-37.] 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. 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 his ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability 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 his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that he 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 he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. THE ALJ'S APPLICATION OF THE FIVE-STEP PROCESS

In this case, at step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not engage in any substantial gainful activity during the period of time between September 17, 2001 (the alleged onset date of disability), and December 31, 2001 (the date the ALJ determined that plaintiff was last insured for Disability Insurance Benefits purposes). [AR at 423.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: "disorder of the liver, secondary to alcohol abuse; hiatal hernias; hepatitis B and C with residuals; a history of substance abuse with subsequent anxiety and reactive depression." [AR at 423-24.] At step three, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. [AR at 424.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn2 to perform medium work, with the following specifications: plaintiff "can occasionally lift and[/]or carry 50 pounds and frequently 25 pounds; he can stand and/or walk six hours out of an eight-hour work day and sit without limitation; he can occasionally stoop and bend; he can do ...


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