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Turcotte v. Astrue

May 19, 2010

JESSICA TURCOTTE, 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 10, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on July 31, 2009, and August 21, 2009. Pursuant to the Court's order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on January 26, 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 October 14, 1988. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 36.] She completed high school and has had some special education in college, but has no past relevant work experience. [AR at 24, 29-30, 204.]

Starting in 1998, plaintiff received Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments as a child based on mental retardation, speech and hearing delays, and a learning disorder. [AR at 17, 36-37, 40-42.] On December 13, 2007, after plaintiff attained the age of 18 years, her disability status was reevaluated, and the Administration found her to be not disabled.*fn1 [AR at 17, 38, 43-47.] Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the cessation of her SSI payments, and on February 29, 2008, a disability hearing officer determined that plaintiff's disability ceased on December 2, 2007. [AR at 39, 50-64.] Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 67.] At the hearing on May 27, 2008, the ALJ granted plaintiff's request for a continuance so she could retain counsel. [AR at 503-10.] A second hearing was held on June 30, 2008, at which plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on her own behalf. A vocational expert also testified. [AR at 26-35.] On September 2, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 14-25.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on May 14, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [AR at 6-10.] 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. DISABILITY REDETERMINATION PROCESS

The evaluation of disability for children differs from that for adults. For an individual under eighteen years of age to be disabled for the purpose of receiving benefits, she must suffer from a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). If an individual has received disability benefits as a child, her eligibility for benefits must be reconsidered by the Commissioner when the individual reaches eighteen years of age. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(iii); 20 C.F.R. § 416.987. In reconsidering the individual's eligibility for continued disability benefits, the Commissioner applies the criteria that are used in assessing whether an adult disability claimant is disabled. Id.

The Commissioner (or ALJ) normally follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether an adult 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). At step one, the Commissioner normally determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. However, this step is not applied when the Commissioner redetermines if an individual who received SSI payments as a child is still eligible for benefits upon reaching the age of eighteen years. 20 C.F.R. § 416.987(b). In the second step of the normal sequential evaluation process, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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 her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at ...


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