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Dickens v. Astrue

September 28, 2010

LAURA DICKENS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

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. As discussed below, the court finds that judgment should be entered in favor of Defendant, affirming the Commissioner's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Laura Dickens was born on May 2, 1962, and was forty-six years old at the time of her latest administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 89, 907.] She has a high school education, with special education, and no past relevant work experience. [AR 446.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of a learning disorder and pain in her lower back and leg. [AR 126.]

II. PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff initially applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") on November 16, 2000, alleging disability since September 16, 2000. [AR 84.] The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff did not pursue further appeals. Plaintiff filed a second SSI application, the subject of these proceedings, on January 14, 2002, alleging disability since September 16, 2000. [Id., AR 89.] An administrative hearing was held on May 15, 2003, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR 379.] Plaintiff appeared with her friend, Harriet Owsley, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff and Ms. Owsley. [Id.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on June 6, 2003. [AR 38.] On August 14, 2003, the Appeals Council remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. [AR 73.] A second administrative hearing was held on November 4, 2003, during which Plaintiff was granted an extension of time to obtain counsel. [AR 407-12.] A third hearing was held on February 5, 2004. [AR 413.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff and vocational expert Joseph Mooney. [AR 414.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision dated March 8, 2004. [AR 16.] When the Appeals Council denied review on May 19, 2004, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 2.]

Plaintiff filed a complaint in the district court on July 26, 2004 (Case No. EDCV 04-855 CW). On January 24, 2006, the court issued a decision and order remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings.

A fourth administrative hearing was held on September 6, 2006, before a new ALJ. [AR 772.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff and vocational expert Sandra Fioretti. [AR 773.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision dated December 7, 2006. [AR 447.]

Plaintiff filed a complaint in the district court on April 11, 2007 (Case No. EDCV 07-361 CW). On January 8, 2008, the court issued a decision and order remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings.

A fifth administrative hearing was held on June 28, 2008. [AR 907.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff, medical expert Joseph Malancharuvil, and vocational expert Sandra Fioretti. [AR 908.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision dated January 20, 2009. [AR 804.]

The present complaint was lodged on March 6, 2009, and filed on March 16, 2009. On August 13, 2009, Defendant filed an Answer and Plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On October 28, 2009, 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. 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 (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.

IV. DISCUSSION

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, 180 F.3d at 1098; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

Disability claims are evaluated using a five-step test:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

Step two: Does the claimant have a "severe" impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding of not disabled is appropriate.

Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is automatically ...


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