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Terri Runkle v. Michael J. Astrue

September 27, 2011

TERRI RUNKLE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), granting her application for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB") as of October 1, 2008. Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred when he: 1) determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work prior to October 1, 2008; 2) rejected the opinion of her treating physician; and 3) determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for the period prior to October 1, 2008. For the reasons explained below, the Court affirms the Agency's decision.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for DIB in 2004, alleging that she had been unable to work since November 2003, due to chronic fatigue syndrome and high blood pressure. (Administrative Record ("AR") 51-54, 70-71.) Following a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on July 27, 2006. (AR 14-20.) After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR 4-6), Plaintiff appealed to this court. The Court reversed and remanded the ALJ's decision for further proceedings. Following another hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of October 1, 2008. (AR 347-55.) Plaintiff then commenced this action.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The ALJ Properly Determined Plaintiff Could Perform Her Past Relevant Work Prior to October 1, 2008 In her first claim of error, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to make specific findings of fact in determining that she could perform her past relevant work prior to October 1, 2008. (Joint Stip. 3-5, 7-8.) In Plaintiff's view, this ran counter to the requirements of Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 82-62. For the following reasons, the Court disagrees.

The issue at step four of the sequential evaluation process is whether the claimant can perform her past relevant work. This step involves two considerations. First, what is the claimant capable of doing, both physically and mentally? And, second, what physical and mental abilities are required to perform the past relevant work, either as the claimant performed it or as it is generally performed in the workplace? See Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

The determination of what a claimant can do physically and mentally--the claimant's residual functional capacity---is based on the medical and other evidence in the record. Pinto, 249 F.3d at 844-45. The ALJ can rely on several sources to determine what is required to perform the claimant's prior work, including the claimant's own explanation as to how she performed it, a vocational expert's testimony as to how the work was performed by the claimant or how it is generally performed in the economy, and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"), which contains a description of the physical and mental demands of jobs. Id. at 845-46.

In this case, the ALJ first determined that, prior to October 1, 2008, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with certain postural, environmental, and other limitations. (AR 349.) The ALJ then relied on vocational expert testimony (from the 2006 administrative hearing) that a hypothetical person of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity could perform Plaintiff's prior occupation of unit secretary at a hospital prior to October 1, 2008. (AR 323-24.) The vocational expert also provided an exhibit specifying that DOT No. 245.362-014 described Plaintiff's job as a unit secretary. (AR 116; see AR 323.) The vocational expert at the 2009 administrative hearing agreed that this DOT section (245.362-014) applied to Plaintiff's past work. (AR 511, 651-53.)

Plaintiff contends that this was not enough. In her view, the ALJ should have analyzed each physical and mental skill necessary to perform the job of unit secretary and then compared those skills with Plaintiff's mental and physical abilities as set forth in the ALJ's residual functional capacity findings. The Court rejects this argument. The vocational expert was not required to testify about each and every physical and mental skill needed to perform the job and match it with each of Plaintiff's physical and mental capabilities. Pinto, 249 F.3d at 845 ("We have never required explicit findings at step four regarding a claimant's past relevant work both as generally performed and as actually performed. The vocational expert merely has to find that a claimant can or cannot continue his or her past relevant work as defined by the regulations above."). In the hypothetical question to the vocational expert at Plaintiff's first hearing, the ALJ set out Plaintiff's limitations, which the vocational expert presumably took into account along with the demands of the job of unit secretary in opining that Plaintiff could perform her past work as she actually performed it or as it is generally performed in the economy. (AR 323-24.) For this reason, this claim is rejected.

B. The ALJ Properly Rejected

The Treating Physician's Opinion Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Omar Bashir. (Joint Stip. 8-11, 16.) There is no merit to this contention.

"By rule, the [Agency] favors the opinion of a treating physician over non-treating physicians." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 600 (9th Cir. 1999) (explaining that a treating physician's opinion "is given deference because 'he is employed to cure and has a greater opportunity to know and observe the patient as an individual'" (quoting Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1230 (9th Cir. 1987))). For this reason, a treating physician's opinion regarding a claimant's medical condition that is well-supported and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record will be given controlling weight. Orn, 495 F.3d at 631; Embrey v. Bowen, 849 F.2d 418, 421 (9th Cir. 1988). An ALJ may, however, reject the opinion of a treating physician that is contradicted by another ...


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