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Valle v. Astrue

June 7, 2010

YOLANDA VALLE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosalyn M. Chapman United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Yolanda Valle filed a complaint on April 16, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. On October 2, 2009, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on November 23, 2009.

BACKGROUND

On July 6, 2006,*fn1 plaintiff, who was born on April 8, 1951, applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 423, and the Supplemental Security Income program ("SSI") of Title XVI of the Act, claiming an inability to work since June 7, 2003,*fn2 due to right arm and right foot injuries. A.R. 91-102, 110. The plaintiff's applications were initially denied on October 10, 2006, and were denied again on February 28, 2007, following reconsideration. A.R. 52-56, 60-64. The plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Thomas P. Tielens ("the ALJ") on June 9, 2008. A.R. 21-37, 65. On September 16, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 10-20. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on February 11, 2009. A.R. 1-9.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine if his findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner used the proper legal standards in reaching his decision. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009); Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). "In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, [this 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. 1998); Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001). "Where the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision, [this Court] may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the Commissioner." Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1141 (2008); Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591.

The claimant is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Act if she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to an impairment 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). "The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability." Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1122 (1996); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process for the ALJ to follow in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, in the Second Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If so, in the Third Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If not, in the Fourth Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity despite the impairment or various limitations to perform her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If not, in Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (Step One). The ALJ then found plaintiff has the following severe impairments: "a history of upper extremity injury in 1999, status post elbow surgery in 2000; and a history of right ankle injury in 2000, status post ankle surgery in 2002"*fn3 (Step Two); however, she does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a Listing. (Step Three). Finally, the ALJ determined plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a teacher's aide and general office clerk; therefore, she is not disabled. (Step Four).

II.

A claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is what she can still do despite her physical, mental, non-exertional, and other limitations. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 460 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009) (RFC is "a summary of what the claimant is capable of doing (for example, how much weight he can lift)"). Here, the ALJ found plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work or, alternately, a limited range of light work,*fn4 as follows:

she is limited to occasional climbing, bending, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; she is unable to climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she is limited to frequent (not constant) gripping and fine manipulations with the right (dominant) upper extremity; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to heat, cold, and hazards such as heights and moving machinery.

A.R. 17. However, plaintiff contends the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ erroneously determined she was not a credible witness and improperly failed to consider the ...


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