This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is denied, defendant's cross-motion is granted, and the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is affirmed.
On February 27, 2004, plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act) and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI, alleging disability beginning on February 3, 2004. (Transcript (Tr.) at 74-76, 90-96, 373-77.) The applications were denied initially in May 2004 and upon reconsideration in August 2004. (Tr. at 57-58, 66-71, 378-84.) A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Antonio Acevedo-Torres in June 2005. (Tr. at 31-56, 72.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 31-56.) In a decision issued on July 15, 2005, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not entitled to DIB or SSI benefits. (Tr. at 12-21.) After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review in September 2006 (tr. at 4-6, 8), plaintiff sought judicial review by filing case No. CIV S-06-2659 CMK (E.D. Cal.). By stipulated order filed August 14, 2007, the case was remanded for further proceedings. (Tr. at 421-22.) The court's order required the Appeals Council to remand the case to the ALJ with instructions to (1) further evaluate the May 25, 2005 opinion of treating physician Alexander Chen, M.D., (2) further evaluate the credibility of plaintiff's subjective complaints pursuant to Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-7p and apply SSR 06-03p to the third-party statements of Deborah Saienni, and (3) obtain testimony from a vocational expert (VE) regarding the effect of any medically determined non-exertional impairment on plaintiff's occupational base. (Tr. at 421-22.) The Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ by order dated October 4, 2007. (Tr. at 427-28.)
On January 3, 2008, a remand hearing was held before ALJ Stanley R. Hogg. (Tr. at 691-727.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing, as did a VE. (Tr. at 691-92.) In a decision issued on June 19, 2008, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not been under a disability from February 2, 2004 through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 401-11.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2009.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 2, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: plantar fasciitis, obesity and a learning disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the exertional demands of work as follows: lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk for up to 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; and can sit for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. The undersigned further finds that the claimant retains the following residual functional capacity to perform the mental demands of work: moderate limitations dealing with people; moderate limitations concentrating; is unable to work with supervisors, co-workers or the public on more than occasional basis; should not deal with the public on a frequent basis; and limitations in concentrating would preclude complex work but no low semi-skilled or unskilled work.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565 and 416.965).
7. The claimant was born on June 16, 1971 and was 32 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563 and 416.963).
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564 and 416.964).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.960(c), and 416.966).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from February 2, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).
On February 6, 2009, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's June 19, 2008 decision. (Tr. at 389-96.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on April 6, 2009.
The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:
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., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
Step four: Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.
Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995).
The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. The Commissioner bears the burden if the sequential evaluation process proceeds to step five. ...