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Esmeralda Madrid v. Michael J. Astrue

June 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

The parties are familiar with the procedural history of this case, which is summarized in the Joint Stipulation. [See JS 2]. In a written hearing decision that constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus, status post fracture of the left wrist, hypertension, and depressive disorder not otherwise specified. [JS 2; Administrative Record ("AR") 10]. The ALJ found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the exertional requirements of light work, but that she is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; working at heights; balancing; and performing forceful gripping, grasping, or twisting with her left hand. The ALJ also restricted plaintiff to "4- and 5-step moderately complex and habituated tasks" that do not involve responsibility for the safety of others or fast-paced work. [AR 11]. The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled because her RFC did not preclude her from performing work available in significant numbers in the national economy. [See JS 2; AR 16-17].

Standard of Review

The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)(internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir.1999)).


Alternative work finding

Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's RFC assessment or the manner in which he framed his hypothetical question. Plaintiff contends, however, that the ALJ erred in relying on the testimony of the vocational expert ("VE") in response to the ALJ's hypothetical question incorporating plaintiff's limitations that were supported by the record. Plaintiff contends that there are "apparent inconsistencies" between the VE's testimony in response to the hypothetical question and information in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to acknowledge or reconcile the conflict in his decision, and that the vocational expert's testimony did not constitute substantial evidence supporting the ALJ's disability determination.

At step five of the sequential evaluation procedure, the Commissioner has the burden to establish that there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform. The Commissioner may meet that burden by taking the testimony of a vocational expert, or by referring to the "grids." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100-1101 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the testimony of a VE is used at Step Five, the VE must identify a specific job or jobs in the national economy having requirements that the claimant's physical and mental abilities and vocational qualifications would satisfy." Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162-1163 (9th Cir. 2001).

An ALJ may not rely on a VE's testimony regarding the requirements of a particular job without first inquiring whether that testimony conflicts with job information in the DOT. Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007). A VE's "testimony may give rise to such a conflict in at least two different ways. First, the vocational expert may testify that a particular job requires a particular exertional or skill level, when the DOT expressly provides that the job requires a different exertional level." Carey v. Apfel, 230 F.3d 131, 144 n.2 (5th Cir. 2000). "A second, and different type of conflict may arise when the [VE's] testimony places the ALJ's finding with respect to the claimant's residual functional capacity or the claimant's specific impairments in conflict with the exertional or skill level or the specific skills required for the identified jobs in the DOT." Carey, 230 F.3d at 144 n.2.

Neither the DOT nor the VE's testimony "automatically trumps when there is a conflict." Massachi, 486 F.3d at 1153 (footnote omitted). The ALJ must obtain an explanation from the VE for any conflict and must then determine whether the explanation is reasonable, and whether a basis exists for relying on the expert rather than the DOT. Massachi, 486 F.3d at 1153; see Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1428 (9th Cir. 1995) (stating that an ALJ may rely on expert testimony which contradicts the DOT "only insofar as the record contains persuasive evidence to support the deviation").

During the May 7, 2009 administrative hearing [AR 56-72], the ALJ posed hypothetical questions to the VE. One such question asked the VE to assume the existence of a right-hand dominant hypothetical individual with plaintiff's age, education, and prior work experience who can lift and carry up to ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; cannot climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, work at heights, balance, or perform forceful gripping, grasping, or twisting with the non-dominant left hand; can perform occasional fine manipulation with the non-dominant left hand*fn1 ; has no limitations with the dominant right hand; and can "perform moderately complex tasks, four to five steps, habituated," but "should not be placed in charge of the safety of others or required to do any fast-paced work." [AR 69]. he VE testified that such an individual could not perform plaintiff's past relevant work, but was not precluded from performing the light, unskilled jobs of information clerk, DOT occupational code number 237.367-018; shoe packager, DOT occupational code number 920.687-166; and counter clerk, DOT occupational code number 249.366-010. [AR 69-70]. The VE testified that those three jobs were not an "exhaustive" list, but were "representative." [AR 70]. Asked whether his testimony was consistent with the DOT, the VE testified that it was. [AR 70]. The ALJ relied on the VE's testimony to find that plaintiff could perform the jobs identified by the VE and therefore was not disabled. [AR 16-17].

Plaintiff contends that there are apparent, unresolved inconsistencies between the occupational definitions in the DOT for the jobs of counter clerk, shoe packager, and information clerk, and the VE's testimony that ...

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