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Curry v. Astrue

October 26, 2010

CYNTHIA CURRY, 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 denial of disability benefits. The court finds that judgment should be granted in favor of defendant, affirming the Commissioner's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Cynthia Curry was born on May 20, 1956, and was fifty-two years old at the time of her administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 84.] She has a high school education with some college education, and past relevant work as a school bus driver and in-home caretaker. [AR 104, 394, 440.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), chronic tendinitis, and high blood pressure. [AR 95.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff's complaint was lodged on June 19, 2009, and filed on June 24, 2009. On December 2, 2009, Defendant filed an Answer and Plaintiff's Administrative Record. On May 4, 2010, 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. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on May 15, 2001, alleging disability since April 26, 2001. [AR 84.] Plaintiff was insured for DIB purposes until September 1, 2004; accordingly, she must establish disability on or before this date. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on April 12, 2002, before Administrative Law Judge James Paisley ("ALJ Paisley") (the "2002 Hearing"). [AR 62-65, 390-423.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel and gave testimony. [AR 390-423.] ALJ Paisley denied benefits in a decision issued on September 16, 2002 (the "2002 Decision"). [AR 327-32.] Plaintiff requested review of the decision by the Appeals Council, which remanded the case to an administrative law judge on March 18, 2004. [AR 348-49.] The Appeals Council ordered the administrative law judge to further consider Plaintiff's residual functional capacity and if warranted, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert. [AR 349.]

On October 12, 2005, a second administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Edward Schneeberger ("ALJ") (the "2005 Hearing"). [AR 424-69.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. [Id.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision issued on February 9, 2006 (the "2006 Decision"). [AR 21-26.] When the Appeals Council denied review on August 17, 2006, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 7-9.] On October 18, 2006, Plaintiff filed a complaint in the United States District Court, Central District of California (Case No. CV 06-6543 CW), appealing the 2006 Decision denying benefits. [AR 487.] During the pendency of her appeal, Plaintiff filed a duplicate application on February 7, 2007. [AR 497.] On September 11, 2007, this Court issued a Decision and Order finding that specific and legitimate reasons were not provided to discount treating medical evidence and remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings (the "2007 Remand Order"). [AR 485-94.] On September 27, 2007, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the matter to an administrative law judge for further proceedings consistent with the 2007 Remand Order. [AR 497-98.] The Appeals Council also directed the administrative law judge to associate both of Plaintiff's claim files and issue a new decision on the associated claims. [Id.]

On September 23, 2008, a third administrative hearing was held before the ALJ. [AR 539-65.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. [Id.] On March 19, 2009, the ALJ denied benefits. [AR 473-83.] The Appeals Council denied review and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.

IV. 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. Id. at 720-21; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

V. 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, ...


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