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Annette Jones v. Michael J. Astrue

January 5, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge




On January 19, 2010, plaintiff Annette Jones ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, seeking review of a denial of supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

On March 22, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 11, 12.]

On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 13.] Both Plaintiff and Defendant subsequently consented to proceed for all purposes before the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Docket Nos. 14, 15.]

Pursuant to a January 20, 2010 order regarding further proceedings, Plaintiff submitted a brief in support of her complaint ("Plaintiff's Brief") on April 23, 2010. [Docket No. 16.] On May 12, 2010, Defendant submitted his opposition brief ("Defendant's Brief"). [Docket No. 19.] On May 19, 2010, Plaintiff submitted her reply ("Reply"). [Docket No. 20.] The Court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' written submissions and the administrative record, the Court concludes that, as detailed below, there is substantial evidence in the record, taken as a whole, to support the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Thus, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.



Plaintiff, who was 44 years old on the date of her administrative hearing, has a high school education and vocational training in cosmetology. (See Administrative Record ("AR") at 18, 143, 174-75.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a hair stylist, in-home health aide, home companion, and a hand packager. (Id. at 14, 35-36.)

On September 22, 2006, Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI, alleging that she has been disabled since June 1, 2002 due to arthritis and depression. (See AR at 8, 143, 165, 170.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 55, 56, 66, 72.)

On August 12, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (See AR at 18-38.) Elizabeth Cerezo-Donnelly, a vocational expert ("VE"), also testified. (See id. at 8, 35-37.)

On September 15, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 8-15.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process -- which is discussed below -- the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her SSI application date.1/ (Id. at 10.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from a severe impairment consisting of "facet arthropathy at L5-S1 of the lumbar spine." (Id. at 11 (emphasis omitted).)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence did not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairment, either individually or in combination, met or medically equaled the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.2/ (AR at 11.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity3/ ("RFC") and determined that she can "lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, stand/walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, occasional stooping, bending and crouching, and avoidance of concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures." (AR at 11 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform her 1/ Plaintiff previously applied for SSI in 2004. (See AR at 8.) However, Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on July 28, 2006. (Id.) Plaintiff did not appeal the denial by the Appeals Council. (Id.) At the August 12, 2009 hearing, Plaintiff's counsel did not seek to reopen the prior application. (Id. at 22, 24.)

Plaintiff also filed a prior application for SSI in 2003, which is not relevant to the instant action. (AR at 8.)

2/ See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1.

3/ Residual functional capacity is what a claimant can still do despite existing exertional and non-exertional limitations. Cooper v. Sullivan, 880 F.2d 1152, 1155 n. 5 (9th Cir. 1989). "Between steps three and four of the five-step evaluation, the ALJ must proceed to an intermediate step in which the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1151 n. 2 (9th Cir. 2007).

past relevant work as a hair stylist, home companion, hand packager, and in-home health aide. (AR at 14-15.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 15.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 4.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.



A. Five-Step Inquiry to Ascertain a Cognizable Disability A claimant must satisfy three fundamental elements to be eligible for disability benefits: (1) a medically-determinable impairment; (2) the impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity; and (3) the impairment is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A well-established five-step sequential inquiry is utilized to assess whether a particular claimant satisfies these three elements. The inquiry proceeds as follows:

First, is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant cannot be considered disabled.

Second, does the claimant suffer from a "severe" impairment, to wit, one continuously lasting at least 12 months? If not, the claimant is not disabled.

Third, does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment specifically identified as a disability by the Commissioner under 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined to be disabled.

Fourth, is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled.

Fifth, does the claimant have the so-called "residual functional capacity" to perform some other type of work? The critical question posed here is whether the claimant can, in light of the impairment and his or her age, education and work experience, adjust to another form of gainful employment?

If a claimant is found "disabled" or "not disabled" along any of these steps, there is no need to complete the remaining inquiry. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) & 416.920(a)(4); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99.

B. Standard of Review on Appeal

This Court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The findings and decision of the Social Security Administration must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001, as amended Dec. 21, 2001). If the court, however, determines that the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision to deny benefits. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001).

"Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035. Substantial evidence is such "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding, the reviewing court must review the administrative record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. The ALJ's decision "'cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998)). If the evidence can reasonably support ...

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