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Maestas v. Astrue

August 10, 2010

NATHAN L. MAESTAS SR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margaret A. Nagle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed a Complaint on March 12, 2009, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") of plaintiff's applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). On April 7, 2009, the parties consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on October 14, 2009, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and awarding benefits or, alternatively, remanding the case for a new administrative hearing; and defendant asks that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed his applications for SSI and DIB on September 21, 2006, alleging an inability to work since September 15, 2004, due to mental impairments from psychotic disorders, depression, and high anxiety. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 70, 60.) His past relevant work ("PRW") includes: diesel mechanic helper; crash chief and crash captain; work center supervisor; industrial truck operator; manager, airport; deliverer, merchandise; and construction worker II. (A.R. 34, 36.)

Plaintiff's DIB and SSI applications were denied initially on December 26, 2006, and upon reconsideration on May 8, 2007. (A.R. 70.) On June 10, 2008, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Mason D. Harrell, Jr. ("ALJ"). (A.R. 41-53.) On July 11, 2008, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications (A.R. 70-78), and the Appeals Counsel subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on February 3, 2009 (A.R. 1-3). Plaintiff had a previous hearing based on the same disability claims before Administrative Law Judge Lowell Fortune ("ALJ Fortune"), who found that plaintiff was not disabled as defined under the Social Security Act from September 15, 2004, through the date of his decision on August 19, 2006. (A.R. 62.)

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. (A.R. 72.)

The ALJ determined that plaintiff has a combination of severe mental impairments consisting of psychotic disorder, not otherwise specified, mood disorder, not otherwise specified, and polysubstance dependence, which was in remission at the time of the hearing. (A.R. 72.) The ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (A.R. 73.)

The ALJ found that the testimony of both plaintiff and his mother was only credible to the extent it described the work plaintiff was capable of performing. (A.R. 75.) Both plaintiff and his mother admitted that plaintiff could perform household chores and yard work, go to doctor appointments, drive a car, and go out for social functions, such as seeing movies or going to church. Id. The ALJ found that the additional evidence and testimony provided by plaintiff and his mother was insufficient to overcome the presumption that plaintiff could work at the residual functional capacity ("RFC") level previously determined by ALJ Fortune. (A.R. 76, 62.)

The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform work at any exertional level with the following non-exertional limitations. Plaintiff: can perform simple repetitive tasks consisting of object oriented work; can have occasional non-personal contact with co-workers and supervisors, but should remain precluded from working with the public or having responsibility for the safety of others; and should not operate heavy machinery or potentially dangerous equipment. (A.R. 74.)

The ALJ found that plaintiff had PRW as a construction site cleaner and remains capable of performing that work. (A.R. 77.) The ALJ thus concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from September 15, 2004, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Id.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those "'reasonably drawn from the record'" will suffice. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted).

Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005. However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett, 340 F.3d at 874. The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was 'inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination.'" ...


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