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Maldonado v. Astrue

June 17, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Maria Maldonado seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on November 24, 1956. She completed the ninth grade in Mexico and has worked as an assembler and janitor. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 52, 79, 99.) Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI benefits*fn1 on March 19, 2007, alleging disability as of August 1, 1999, due to shoulder, lower back, arm, and knee impairments arising from a work-related injuries in 1995 and 1997.*fn2 (AR at 79.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (AR at 67, 98.) An administrative hearing was held on July 7, 2008, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert J. Grossman. (AR at 47-65.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified on her own behalf with the aid of an interpreter. A vocational expert ("VE"), Barbara Miksic, also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

ALJ Grossman issued an unfavorable decision on February 20, 2009. (AR at 21-28.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of August 1, 1999, to December 31, 2002, the date she was last insured. Plaintiff's severe impairments were found to include internal derangement of the knees and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, but these impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet the requirements of a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 23-24.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work.*fn3 (AR at 24-27.) This RFC precluded Plaintiff from returning to her past relevant work. (AR at 27.) Nonetheless, the ALJ concluded that there existed work in the economy that Plaintiff could perform and that she was not disabled based upon Medical-Vocational Rule 202.16. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2.

The Appeals Council denied review on August 25, 2009, (AR at 9), and Plaintiff commenced this action on October 23, 2009. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by (1) finding that Plaintiff could perform light work; and (2) failing to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective testimony. (Joint Stip. at 7, 17.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 1999); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)(citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing 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. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Discussion

A. The ALJ Properly Determined Plaintiff's RFC

Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in concluding that she retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of light work. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to "base his RFC determination on the entire record including [Plaintiff's] testimony and reports stemming from chiropractic treatment," and "failed to consider whether [Plaintiff] would be able to sustain work activity." (Joint Stip. at 11.) In support of this argument, Plaintiff chronicles the medical evidence from November, 2001, through the end of 2007, and argues that it "supports" a finding that she would not be able to sustain work activity. (Id.)

Plaintiff's insured status expired on December 31, 2002, and she bore the burden of establishing that she was disabled prior to that date. Parra, 481 F.32 at 746 (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th th Cir. 1998)); Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995). "The mere existence of an impairment is insufficient proof of a disability." Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 680 (9th Cir. 1993). Instead, Plaintiff was required to demonstrate that her impairments resulted in functional limitations severe enough to prevent her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity. Id. For the reasons stated below, the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff had not met this burden was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The ALJ noted both at the hearing and in his written decision that the majority of Plaintiff's medical records are dated after December 31, 2002, the date she was last insured. (AR at 25, 58-64.) The ALJ provided Plaintiff with 60 days after the hearing to supplement the record to remedy the deficiency. (AR at 64.) Although Plaintiff did submit additional records, the earliest of those medical records is dated October 30, 2001, more than two years after her alleged onset date. In his unfavorable decision, the ALJ surveyed the available medical records for the time period during and up to six months after Plaintiff's insurance status expired, including records from two orthopaedists, Drs. Missirian and Angerman, and her chiropractor, Steve Settlage. (AR at 25.) Each of these medical sources treated or examined Plaintiff in connection with her worker's compensation claim.

Between October 2001 and October 2003 Dr. Missirian evaluated Plaintiff for lumbar spine and knee injuries at the request of her treating chiropractor. (AR at 440-507.) Dr. Missirian noted a history of right and left arthroscopic knee surgeries and diagnosed internal knee derangement, ligament tears in both knees, and lumbar spine musculoligamentous injury with disc protrusion. (See AR at 483, 497-98, 505.) He performed arthroscopic surgery on Plaintiff's left knee and epidural steroid injections to the lumbar spine. Plaintiff was undergoing concurrent physical therapy throughout this period with her chiropractor and taking medication to alleviate pain. During the relevant time period, Plaintiff reported slight to moderate pain in her knees and back, which were aggravated by bending, stooping, squatting, prolonged walking, and cold weather. She reported that her symptoms were alleviated with pain medication. (AR at 468-507.) During Plaintiff's first visit on October 30, 2001, Dr. Missirian concluded that ...

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