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Maria Figueroa v. Michael J. Astrue

September 12, 2011

MARIA FIGUEROA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

Plaintiff, who is represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Act.*fn1 In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") in this case erred by: (1) giving "very little weight" to the opinion of plaintiff's chiropractor, James W. Newell, D.C. ("Mr. Newell"); (2) finding that plaintiff's testimony regarding her limitations was not credible to the extent that it was inconsistent with the residual functional capacity found by the ALJ; and (3) not crediting the testimony of a vocational expert in response to hypothetical questions about plaintiff's ability to work that were premised on plaintiff's proposed residual functional capacity. (See generally Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J., Dkt. No. 18.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 19.) Plaintiff did not file a reply brief. For the reasons stated below, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

On June 20, 2006, plaintiff*fn3 filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits that alleged a disability onset date of September 21, 2003, and an application for Social Security Income benefits that alleged a disability onset date of March 9, 2002.*fn4 (Admin. Tr. ("AT") 129-38.) The ALJ assessed plaintiff's applications based on an alleged disability onset date of September 21, 2003, without any discussion of the apparent discrepancy. (AT 24.) In any event, the Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 96-99, 100-04, 109-14.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claim on June 11, 2008. (AT 60-80, 124.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified. For the most part, plaintiff testified through an interpreter because plaintiff asserted that she could not speak English. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated July 24, 2008, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications for benefits based on a finding that plaintiff was "capable of performing past relevant work as a cook, dishwasher, vegetable sorter, and final finisher (construction)."*fn5 (AT 32.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-5.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required five-step evaluation and concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since September 21, 2003, the alleged date of onset of disability used by the ALJ. (AT 27.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "musculoligamentous strain and coccydynia"*fn6 (id.), stemming from a previously fractured coccyx. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in the applicable regulations. (Id.)

Prior to reaching step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of medium work defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c)*fn7 and 416.967(c). Specifically, the claimant can lift, carry, push, and pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. She can sit for 8 hours, and stand and walk for 8 hours, in an 8 hour day with normal breaks. (AT 27.) In assessing plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ addressed plaintiff's testimony and found that plaintiff was not credible to the extent that plaintiff's testimony conflicted with the RFC. (See AT 30-31.) The ALJ also addressed the opinion of Mr. Newell and gave it "very little weight." (See AT 28-29.)

Having assessed plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff "is capable of performing relevant past work as a cook, dishwasher, vegetable sorter, and final finisher (construction)." (AT 32.) The ALJ stated that the VE testified that these jobs are performed at the medium or light exertional levels. (Id.) As a result of the ALJ's finding at step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled without reaching step five of the analysis.

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is (1) free of legal error, and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bruce v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 1113, 1115 (9th Cir. 2009); accord Vernoff v. Astrue, 568 F.3d 1102, 1105 (9th Cir. 2009). This standard of review has been described as "highly deferential." Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). "'Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)); accord Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690. "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039; see also Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[T]he ALJ is the final arbiter with respect to resolving ambiguities in the medical evidence."). Findings of fact that are supported by substantial evidence are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also McCarthy v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1119, 1125 (9th Cir. 2000). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222; see also Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) ("'Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation,' the ALJ's decision should be upheld.") (quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). However, the court "must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Ryan, 528 F.3d at 1198 (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)); accord Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007).

III. DISCUSSION

A. The ALJ's Permissibly Discounted Plaintiff's Chiropractor's Opinion Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of Mr. Newell, plaintiff's treating chiropractor, who is not a licensed physician. Mr. Newell's opinions regarding plaintiff's functional ability were set forth in a form dated February 12, 2007. (See AT 296-300.) Mr. Newell opined that, among other things, plaintiff could lift or carry at most 12 pounds but only occasionally; could never climb, stoop, or crouch, but could occasionally balance, kneel, and crawl; could occasionally reach, push, and could frequently handle, feel, and hear; could sit, stand, or walk for at most one hour in an eight-hour workday; and should avoid concentrated exposure to dust, temperature extremes, fumes, and vibrations. (See id.) Mr. Newell generally cited an x-ray and an MRI from 1999 as supporting his opinion. (AT 296, 299.) He also relied on plaintiff's poor posture, ...


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