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Constance L. Maxwell v. Michael J. Astrue

July 20, 2011

CONSTANCE L. MAXWELL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented under 28 U.S.C § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of disability and disability insurance benefits. For the reasons stated below, the Magistrate Judge finds that judgment should be granted in favor of defendant, affirming the Commissioner's decision.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Constance Maxwell, was born on September 3, 1953, and was fifty-two years old on the date last insured. [Administrative Record "AR" 19.] She has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a mail handler for the U.S. Postal Service. [AR 19, 26.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of fibromyalgia, cervical and lumbar spine impairment, severe back pain, joint arthritis, and depression. [AR 108.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff's complaint was lodged and filed on October 15, 2010. On April 22, 2011, defendant filed an Answer and plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On June 24, 2011, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act on April 23, 2007, alleging disability since August 1, 1999. [AR 8.]

After the application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on December 2, 2008, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Lowell Fortune. [Transcript, AR 16-41.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from plaintiff [AR 19-37], medical expert ("ME") Samuel Landau, M.D., [AR 20-22], and vocational expert ("VE") Sandra M. Fioretti [37-40].

The ALJ denied benefits in an administrative decision filed on April 13, 2009. [AR 8-15.] When the Appeals Council denied review on September 1, 2010, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 1-3.] This action followed.

IV. 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 decisions should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995) (per curiam).

"Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a 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." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F. 3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F. 3d 1162.

V. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 42 U.S.C.§ 423(d)(1)(A).

Disability claims are evaluated using a five step test:

Step one: is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. ...


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