The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge
The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. The court finds that judgment should be granted in favor of defendant, affirming the Commissioner's decision.
Plaintiff Richard Chung Tack Hong was born on October 20, 1954, and was fifty-three years old at the time of his administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 20, 80.] He has a college education and past relevant work as an assistant minister, part-time teacher, and post office carrier and supervisor. [AR 20-21, 86-90, 101, 104, 115.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of a bulging disc in the neck and injury to the neck and spine. [AR 100.]
II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT
Plaintiff's complaint was filed on June 18, 2009. On November 18, 2009, defendant filed an Answer and plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On January 11, 2010, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.
III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on August 23, 2006, alleging disability since February 1, 2005. [JS 1.] An administrative hearing was held on August 1, 2008, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Thomas P. Tielens. [AR 18.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from plaintiff and a vocational expert. [Id.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision issued on December 17, 2008. [AR 14-15.] When the Appeals Council denied review on April 21, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 1.]
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) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a 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." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.
A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION
To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, ...