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Maria D. Aparicio Pineda v. Michael J. Astrue

January 26, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Maria D. Aparicio Pineda ("Plaintiff") seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and this action is remanded for further proceedings.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on May 3, 1963. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 25). She has relevant work experience as a machine operator and stock clerk. (AR at 25).

Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on September 8, 2006, alleging that she has been disabled since February 3, 2004, due to arthritis in her back. (AR at 15, 116-20, 137). The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration. (AR at 15, 83-86, 88-92).

An administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Richard A. Urbin ("the ALJ") on March 18, 2009. (AR at 27-65). Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing with the assistance of an interpreter. (AR at 30-57, 59-60). A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (AR at 57-62). The ALJ issued a decision on March 18, 2009, denying Plaintiff's application. (AR at 30-36). The ALJ found that Plaintiff: (1) has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (step 1); (2) suffers from medically determinable impairments that in combination were severe throughout the period under consideration*fn1 (step 2); (3) does not have any impairments that meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment (step 3); (4) has a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; (5) is unable to perform her past relevant work (step 4); but is able to perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy, including the jobs of basket filler, garment bagger, and conveyer belt worker. (AR at 18-19, 25-26). The Appeals Council denied review on April 26, 2010. (AR at 1-4).

Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review on June 22, 2010. The parties filed a joint statement of disputed issues ("Joint Stipulation) on December 22, 2010. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to her mental impairment, the opinions of her treating physicians and her subjective symptom testimony. Plaintiff seeks remand for payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stipulation at 25). The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stipulation at 25).

II. 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 from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a 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 Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "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 720-721.


A. Plaintiff's Treating Physician's Opinion

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the work-related limitations assessed by her treating physician.

The Commissioner is directed to weigh medical opinions based in part on their source, specifically, whether proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1995). Generally, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual, than the opinion of a non-treating professional. See id.; Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1285 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Commissioner must also consider whether a medical opinion is supported by clinical findings and is contradicted by other medical evidence of record. The Commissioner may reject the uncontradicted opinion of a treating or examining medical professional only for "clear and convincing" reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Lester, 81 F.3d at 831. A contradicted opinion of a treating or examining professional may be rejected only for "specific and legitimate" reasons supported by substantial evidence. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. If a treating professional's opinion is contradicted by an examining professional's opinion, which is supported by different independent clinical findings, the Commissioner may resolve the conflict by relying on the latter. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 ...

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