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Leck Signavong v. Michael J. Astrue

October 25, 2011

LECK SIGNAVONG,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Margaret A. Nagle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff filed a Complaint on June 28, 2010, seeking review of the denial by the Social Security Commissioner (the "Commissioner") of plaintiff's application for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), and supplemental security income ("SSI"). On July 22, 2010, the parties consented, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on March 30, 2011 in which: plaintiff seeks an order reversing the Commissioner's decision and remanding this case for the payment of benefits or, alternatively, remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings; and defendant requests that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed or, alternatively, remanded for further administrative proceedings. The Court has taken the parties' Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on February 5, 2008. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") 9, 151, 128.) Plaintiff, who was born on June 12, 1953 (A.R. 140, 147, 151),*fn1 claims to have been disabled since December 20, 2004, due to paralysis of the left side of his body, left leg pain, left arm numbness, "the spinal cord," memory loss, hypertension, weakness, dizziness, depression (A.R. 13, 156), as well as difficulties "lifting, squatting, bending, standing, walking, sitting, kneeling, climbing stairs, seeing, following instructions, concentrating, completing tasks, and getting along with others" (A.R. 13, 175). Plaintiff has past relevant work ("PRW") experience as a security guard. (A.R. 17.)

After the Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and upon reconsideration (A.R. 55-66), plaintiff requested a hearing (A.R. 68). On September 15, 2009, and November 18, 2009, plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Mason D. Harrell, Jr. (the "ALJ"). (A.R. 19-50.) At the November administrative hearing, testimony was given by medical expert Dr. Michael Kania, M.D. and vocational expert Corinne J. Porter. On December 28, 2009, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim (A.R. 9-18), and the Appeals Council subsequently denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision (A.R. 1-3). That decision is now at issue in this action.

SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

The ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 20, 2004, the alleged onset date of plaintiff's disability. (A.R. 11.) The ALJ also determined that plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2008. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the left hip, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.*fn2 (Id.) The ALJ further concluded, however, that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926). (A.R. 12.)

After reviewing the record, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform less than a full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). Specifically, the ALJ found that:

[plaintiff] can stand and/or walk for 4 to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, for one hour at a time without the use of a cane; he can occasionally stoop or bend; he has no sitting limitations; he can not climb, balance, or work at heights; he can occasionally to frequently push and pull with his left arm; he would have slight difficulty operating hand controls and using tools with his left hand; he can do frequent simple gripping and fine coordinated movements with his left hand and fingers; he has unrestricted use of the right upper extremity; he can lift and/or carry 15 pounds frequently and 30 pounds occasionally; he can do simple tasks in a non-public work setting, with occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers; and he may miss work 1-2 times per month.

(A.R. 13.)

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing his PRW as a security guard. (A.R. 17.) The ALJ determined that plaintiff's PRW, as generally performed, does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by plaintiff's RFC. (Id.) In making this finding, the ALJ relied on the testimony of the vocational expert. (Id.) The ALJ also noted that his finding was supported by the testimony of medical expert Dr. Kania. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from December 20, 2004, the alleged disability onset date, through the date of his decision. (A.R. 9, 17-18.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Id. (citation omitted). The "evidence must be more than a mere scintilla but not necessarily a preponderance." Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003). "While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those 'reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice." Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006)(citation omitted).

Although this Court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the Court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the Court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn, 495 F.3d at 630; see also Connett, 340 F.3d at 874. The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was 'inconsequential to the ultimate non-disability determination.'" ...


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