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Belinda Jane Wade v. Michael J. Astrue

September 26, 2011

BELINDA JANE WADE, 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) failing to address every aspect of certain medical records and an examining physician's opinion, thereby "tacitly" rejecting purported work-related limitations noted therein; (2) failing to properly address plaintiff's obesity; (3) 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; (4) failing to properly address third-party lay witness reports or observations provided by Judith Ogletree and a Social Security Administration representative; and (5) not calling a vocational expert to testify regarding plaintiff's ability to perform past relevant work as actually performed. (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.*fn2 (Def.'s Cross-Motion for Summ. J., Dkt. No. 19.) 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*fn3

A. Procedural History

On March 9, 2007, plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Social Security Income, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2006.*fn4 (See Admin. Tr. ("AT") 89-103.) Plaintiff subsequently amended the alleged onset date to March 1, 2006. (AT 43, 184.) Plaintiff's applications were premised on alleged illnesses or conditions of bipolar disorder, depression, diabetes, and hepatitis C. (See AT 74, 82, 128, 137, 158.)

The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration. (See AT 70-78, 82-86.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's applications on November 4, 2008. (AT 36-37, 41-69, 88.) Plaintiff testified at the hearing and was represented by counsel. Plaintiff also submitted, and the ALJ considered, a third-party function report prepared by plaintiff's friend, Judith Ogletree. (AT 21, 119-26.) The ALJ did not call a vocational expert to testify at the hearing regarding plaintiff's ability to work.

In a written decision dated January 2, 2009, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications for benefits on the basis of a finding that plaintiff was "capable of performing past relevant work as an answering service operator."*fn5 (AT 21.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-3.) 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 activity since March 1, 2006, the alleged onset date." (AT 17.)

At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following "severe" impairment: "mood disorder not otherwise specified." (AT 17.) The ALJ expressly declined to adopt the state agency's determination that plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment. (AT 21.) At this step in the analysis, the ALJ discussed plaintiff's substance abuse and recovery, and plaintiff's medical history suggesting conditions of hepatitis C, obesity, episodic asthma, and symptoms of bipolar disorder. (See AT 17-18.) However, the ALJ concluded that none of these impairments rose to the level of a severe impairment. (See AT 18 (concluding, among other things, that "although the claimant is obese and has hepatitis C and episodic asthma, the medical evidence of record fails to demonstrate any significant deficits in work-related activities lasting for any 12-month period").

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. (AT 18.) Prior to reaching step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity ("RFC"):

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: she can perform simple, detailed, and unskilled work. (AT 19.) In assessing plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ addressed plaintiff's testimony and found that plaintiff testimony was not credible to the extent that it conflicted with the assigned RFC. (See AT 20-21.) The ALJ relied, in part, on the third-party report of Ms. Ogletree in discounting plaintiff's testimony and finding plaintiff not disabled. (AT 21.)

Having assessed plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was "capable of performing past relevant work as an answering service operator," which plaintiff had performed on a full-time basis over a period of 15 years. (AT 21; see also AT 129.) The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform her past work "as actually performed" because plaintiff's prior work involved "simple duties such as answering the phone and some detail in doing some data input, etc." (Id.) The ALJ also noted that plaintiff had "indicated that she stopped working because her grandmother died, i.e., not due to her mental impairment." (Id.) The ALJ continued:

Though this may have been a stressful event causing understandable grieving the present record does not show that it was such a catastrophic event causing [the claimant] to decompensate to the extent that she could no longer work. Rather, she was able to continue with her life and handle the various demands required to take care of her family, housework, cooking, and various other activities in a successful manner. Indeed, the fact that she could succeed with her [substance abuse] recovery efforts reinforces the conclusion that her mental status has remained intact during the alleged period of her disability.

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. (AT 21-22.)

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 ...


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