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Frederick Thompson v. Michael J. Astrue

January 19, 2011

FREDERICK THOMPSON, 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 December 10, 2009, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on December 6, 2010, and December 23, 2010. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on June 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 April 21, 1972. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 45, 99, 667.] He has a bachelor's degree and past work experience as, among other things, an office manager, telemarketer, social worker, case manager, retail sales representative, cab driver, youth counselor, and behavioral health technician. [AR at 120, 168-75, 191-93, 668-70, 677.]

On January 5, 2005, plaintiff protectively filed his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments, alleging that he has been unable to work since June 15, 2000, due to mental illness.*fn2 [AR at 17, 45, 47, 177-83.] After plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 61A-73.] A hearing was held on October 31, 2006, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on his own behalf. [AR at 681-95.] On January 12, 2007, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 36-44.] On May 18, 2007, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. [AR at 33-35.] On remand, a hearing was held on October 30, 2007, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and again testified on his own behalf. A vocational expert also testified. [AR at 660-80.] On November 29, 2007, a different ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, again finding plaintiff not disabled. [AR at 14-26.] When the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the hearing decision on October 23, 2009, the ALJ's most recent decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. [AR at 6-9.] 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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