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Larry J. Sullivan v. Michael J. Astrue

April 19, 2011

LARRY J. SULLIVAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John E. Mcdermott United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY PROCEEDINGS

On July 30, 2010, Larry J. Sullivan ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant" or "Sullivan") filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on January 19, 2011. On March 23, 2011, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS").

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before the Magistrate Judge. The matter is now ready for decision. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed and the case dismissed with prejudice.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is a 60 year old male who filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on October 5, 2001, alleging severe back pain and mental disorder. (AR 14, 40, 49.) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 3, 2001, the alleged onset date of his disability. (AR 23, 456.)

Plaintiff's claim was denied by the Commissioner. (AR 14, 26-30.) Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing, which was held on December 2, 2002, in Downey, California, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William C. Thompson, Jr. (AR 14.) On February 28, 2003, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 14-24.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 18, 2004. (AR 4.)

Claimant filed a subsequent application for benefits on August 15, 2003. (AR 482.) He was determined to be disabled beginning November 1, 2003. (AR 482.) Claimant's neurological condition apparently had deteriorated since the February 28, 2003, ALJ decision. (AR 482.)

On February 7, 2006, U.S. Magistrate Judge James W. McMahon issued a Memorandum of Decision overturning the February 28, 2003, ALJ decision for the period from June 3, 2001, to November 1, 2003, "remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings regarding Plaintiff's literacy and whether Plaintiff was disabled before November 1, 2003 only." (AR 520.) The Court noted that, if Plaintiff were found to be illiterate, he would be disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids"). (AR 520.) The District Court did not address any of the other findings in the February 28, 2003, ALJ decision. (AR 486.)

On May 16, 2007, the Appeals Council vacated the February 28, 2003, ALJ decision and remanded to an ALJ for further proceedings on the issue of disability prior to November 1, 2003. (AR 482-83.) The Appeals Council did not direct the ALJ to explore any other issues. (AR 451.)

Subsequently, a hearing was held in Downey, California, on July 6, 2007, before ALJ Edward P. Schneeberger. (AR 451.) Claimant appeared and testified and was represented by counsel. Also appearing was medical expert Dr. Stephen H. Wells. On August 16, 2007, ALJ Schneeberger issued an unfavorable decision. (AR 486-492.) Due to procedural issues (AR 449-451), the August 16, 2007, ALJ decision essentially was reissued on May 25, 2010. (AR 449-457.)

DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the only disputed issue that Plaintiff raises as a ground for reversal is as follows:

1. Whether the ALJ properly found Plaintiff was not disabled prior to November 3, 2003?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); see also DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991) (ALJ's disability determination must be supported by substantial evidence and based on the proper legal standards).

Substantial evidence means "'more than a mere scintilla'. . . but less than a preponderance." Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION

The Social Security Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or . . . can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step ...


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