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Elizabeth Hopkins v. Michael J. Astrue

April 27, 2011

ELIZABETH HOPKINS,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margaret A. Nagle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed a Complaint on February 10, 2010, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner (the "Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB").*fn1 On January 5, 2011, the parties consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on November 10, 2010, in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding this case for the payment of benefits or, alternatively, for further administrative proceedings; and defendant requests that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed or, alternatively, remanded for further administrative proceedings. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and DIB. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 78-80.) Plaintiff claims to have been disabled since April 15, 1997, due to fibromyalgia, chronic kidney disease, headaches, gastrointestinal reflux disease,*fn2 arthritis,*fn3 back and neck pain, anemia, and memory loss. (A.R. 45, 51.) Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a receptionist.*fn4

After the Commissioner denied plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration (A.R. 45-49, 51-55), plaintiff requested a hearing (A.R. 57). On June 11, 2008, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey A. Hartfield (the "ALJ"). (A.R. 21-42.) Vocational expert Evonne Worthington also testified. (A.R. 38-41.) On June 25, 2008, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim (A.R. 13-20), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (A.R. 5-9). That decision is now at issue in this action

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from April 15, 1997, the alleged onset date of disability, through December 31, 2001, the date last insured. (A.R. 15.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the severe impairments of kidney stones and headaches. (Id.) The ALJ also determined that, through the date last insured, plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 405.1526). (Id.)

After reviewing the record, the ALJ determined plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and concluded that, "[t]hrough the date last insured, [plaintiff's] past relevant work as [a] receptionist did not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [plaintiff's RFC]." (A.R. 20.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from April 15, 1997, through December 31, 2001. (Id.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). "While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those 'reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice." Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted).

Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett, 340 F.3d at 874. The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was 'inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006)(quoting Stout v. Comm'r, 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch, 400 F.3d at 679.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff makes the following claims: (1) the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician; and (2) the ALJ failed to give clear and convincing reasons for finding plaintiff to be not ...


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