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Howard v. Astrue

October 19, 2010

KHALFANI HOWARD, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abrams United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on November 19, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on December 8, 2009, and December 23, 2009. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on July 15, 2010, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on August 5, 1981. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 64, 67.] He has an eleventh grade education and has completed one year of college [AR at 78, 364-65], and has past relevant work experience as an aide for the blind and a security guard. [AR at 73, 109-16, 362, 408-09, 519.]

On August 12, 2005, plaintiff protectively filed his application for Supplemental Security Income payments, alleging that he has been unable to work since January 30, 2005, due to, among other things, depression, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal tendencies, and memory loss. [AR at 11, 16, 29-30, 64-67, 137.] After his application was denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 28-34, 37-41.] A hearing was held on August 7, 2007, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on his own behalf. A vocational expert and a medical expert also testified. [AR at 358-90.] On August 29, 2007, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. [AR at 8-21.] The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on October 17, 2007. [AR at 3-6.] On December 14, 2007, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court in Case No. ED CV 07-1523-PLA. [See AR at 478.] On February 17, 2009, the Court entered judgment for plaintiff and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings. [AR at 477-87.] On remand, the ALJ held another hearing on May 19, 2009, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and again testified on his own behalf. Plaintiff's mother and a medical expert also testified. [AR at 405-35.] On September 9, 2009, the ALJ issued an opinion again finding plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 391-404.] This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or 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); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995, as amended April 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. If the claimant is not currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. Id.

If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. Id. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled, because he can perform ...


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