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Paul Steven Maestas v. Michael J. Astrue

November 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Andrew J. Wistrich United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal of the decision of defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits. The parties have filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") setting forth their contentions with respect to each disputed issue.

Administrative Proceedings

On December 3, 2007, plaintiff, who was then 39 years old, filed an application for disability benefits alleging that he had been disabled since July 16, 2007 due to an on-the-job back injury that caused pain and functional limitations. [JS 2; Administrative Record ("AR") 125, 145]. In a written hearing decision that constitutes the Commissioner's final decision in this matter, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") concluded that plaintiff was not disabled because his severe physical impairments did not preclude plaintiff from performing work available in significant numbers in the national economy. [AR 6-20].

Standard of Review

The Commissioner's denial of benefits should be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Stout v. Comm'r, Social Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). "It is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). The court is required to review the record as a whole and to consider evidence detracting from the decision as well as evidence supporting the decision. Robbins v. Social Sec. Admin, 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); Verduzco v. Apfel, 188 F.3d 1087, 1089 (9th Cir. 1999). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas, 278 F.3d at 954 (citing Morgan v. Comm'r of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir.1999)).


Severity finding

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and obesity, and that he had a non-severe mental impairment consisting of a mood disorder. [AR 11]. The ALJ further found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work. [AR 12].

A medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if the evidence establishes "a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work." Webb v. Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1289-1290 (9th Cir. 1996)). To assess severity, the ALJ must determine whether a claimant's impairment or combination of impairments significantly limits his or her physical or mental ability to do "basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a); see Webb, 433 F.3d at 686. Basic work activities are the "abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs," such as (1) physical functions like walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, and handling; (2) the capacity for seeing, hearing, speaking, understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (3) the use of judgment; and (4) the ability to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b). The ALJ is required to consider the claimant's subjective symptoms in making a severity determination if the claimant "first establishes by objective medical evidence (i.e., signs and laboratory findings) that he or she has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) and that the impairment(s) could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged symptom(s)." SSR 96-3p, 1996 WL 374181, at *2.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's severity finding is erroneous because he did not articulate legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of plaintiff's workers' compensation treating psychologist, Loren Green, Ph.D. Dr. Green initially evaluated plaintiff in October 2007, a few months after plaintiff sustained his allegedly disabling back injury at work. Dr. Green diagnosed major depressive disorder, single episode, moderate, and anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified ("NOS"). [AR 16, 336]. He assigned plaintiff a Global Assessment of Function ("GAF") score of 52, denoting moderate symptoms or moderate difficulty in social, occupational, or school functioning. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition ("DSM-IV") Multiaxial Assessment, 27-36 (rev. 2000)). [AR 337]. Dr. Green opined that plaintiff's psychological symptoms "have moderately interfered with some, but not all[,] major life and personal functions." [AR 338].

Dr. Green prescribed stress and pain management therapy. [AR 339, 417]. He also referred plaintiff to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation. [AR 339, 418]. Plaintiff "was prescribed Prozac for depression, and the following medical foods: Sentra A.M. for cognitive symptoms, Sentra P.M. for sleep and depression, Gabadone for sleep and anxiety, and Theramine for pain and inflammation." [AR 418].

In an April 2008 follow-up report, Dr. Green diagnosed major depressive order, single episode, moderate; insomnia related to depressive disorder; sexual dysfunction, NOS. and anxiety disorder, NOS. [AR 16, 418]. Dr. Green opined that ...

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