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Christensen v. Astrue

October 29, 2010

JOHANNA MARIE CHRISTENSEN, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosalyn M. Chapman United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Johanna Marie Christensen filed a complaint on July 10, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability benefits. On December 2, 2009, the Commissioner answered the complaint, and the parties filed a joint stipulation on February 10, 2010.

BACKGROUND

On March 7, 2007, plaintiff, who was born on September 28, 1963, applied for disability benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program of Title XVI of the Act, claiming an inability to work since March 7, 2007, due to degenerative disc disease and a herniated disc. A.R. 8, 24, 116. The plaintiff's application was initially denied on July 5, 2007, and was again denied on October 19, 2007, following reconsideration. A.R. 52-62. The plaintiff then requested an administrative hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge Lowell Fortune ("the ALJ") on December 2, 2008. A.R. 17-49, 64. On March 6, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff is not disabled. A.R. 5-16. The plaintiff appealed this decision to the Appeals Council, which denied review on May 14, 2009. A.R. 1-4, 107.

DISCUSSION

I.

The Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying plaintiff disability benefits to determine whether his findings are supported by substantial evidence and he used the proper legal standards in reaching his decision. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009); Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant is "disabled" for the purpose of receiving benefits under the Act if she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to an impairment which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905(a). "The claimant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case of disability." Roberts v. Shalala, 66 F.3d 179, 182 (9th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1122 (1996); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations establishing a five-step sequential evaluation process for the ALJ to follow in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. In the First Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If not, in the Second Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If so, in the Third Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of the Listing of Impairments ("Listing"), 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If not, in the Fourth Step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity despite the impairment or various limitations to perform her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If not, in Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 7, 2007, her application date. (Step One). The ALJ then found plaintiff has the severe impairment of "low back pain with lumbar degenerative disc disease" (Step Two); however, she does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a listed impairment. (Step Three). The ALJ next determined plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. (Step Four). Finally, the ALJ found plaintiff can perform a significant number of jobs in the national economy; therefore, she is not disabled. (Step Five).

II.

A claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is what she can still do despite her physical, mental, non-exertional, and other limitations. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 460 (9th Cir. 2001); see also Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009) (RFC is "a summary of what the claimant is capable of doing (for example, how much weight he can lift)."). Here, the ALJ found plaintiff has the following RFC:

[Plaintiff] is able to lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for two hours in an eight-hour day, and sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. She can climb stairs but never climb ladders. She can occasionally bend and stoop but never balance. She should not work around dangerous machinery or unprotected heights.

A.R. 13. However, plaintiff contends the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence because he failed to properly consider the opinions of her treating orthopedist, Rajiv Puri, M.D., and her physical therapy records, and ...


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