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Richard Graham v. Michael J. Astrue

January 3, 2012

RICHARD GRAHAM,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jean P. Rosenbluth U.S. Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The parties filed a Joint Stipulation on December 14, 2011. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this action is dismissed.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on July 2, 1964. (Administrative Record ("AR") 86.) He graduated high school and worked sporadically at various jobs. (AR 98.)

On April 16, 2007, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging that he had been unable to work since the start of the year because of "diabetes, heart condition, seizures, arthritis, schizophrenia." (AR 97.) After Plaintiff's application was denied, he requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 58.) It was held on November 3, 2008, at which time Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on his own behalf. (AR 25-48.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled because he did not have a "severe impairment or combination of impairments," physical or mental. (AR 19.) On January 5, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1--5.) This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's or ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court "must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

People are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a severe physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

A. The five-step evaluation process

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim is denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. B. The ALJ's application of the five-step process At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since April 16, 2007, the date he applied for SSI. (AR 19.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore, the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments." (AR 19.) Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment, he did not consider steps three through five of the disability determination.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment because his symptoms were "well-controlled with medication." (AR 20.) Plaintiff does not appear to contest that finding.

Next, the ALJ examined whether Plaintiff had any severe physical impairments. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's "history of diabetes mellitus and hypertension" were not severe impairments because "the medical records do not indicate any significant treatment for such impairments." (AR 20.) He noted that while Plaintiff took various medicines for these conditions, he usually had "no new complaints" when he returned to his doctor for refills. (AR 20.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff stated that ...


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