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Nina Lowe-Malone v. Michael A. Astrue

March 12, 2012

NINA LOWE-MALONE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL A. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alicia G. Rosenberg United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Nina Lowe-Malone filed this action on March 16, 2011. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to proceed before the magistrate judge on April 4 and 6, 2011. (Dkt. Nos. 6, 7.) On November 22, 2011, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS") that addressed the disputed issues. The court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument.

Having reviewed the entire file, the court affirms the decision of the Commissioner.

I.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On March 18, 2008, Lowe-Malone filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of May 2, 1999. Administrative Record ("AR") 85, 145-47. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 80-81, 85. Lowe-Malone requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 120-21. On November 5, 2009, the ALJ conducted a hearing at which Lowe-Malone, her husband, and a vocational expert testified. AR 25-79. On November 19, 2009, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. AR 82-93. On January 28, 2011, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. AR 1-5. This action followed.

II.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court reviews the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence, or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

"Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523. In determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the Commissioner's decision. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523.

III.

DISCUSSION

A. Disability

A person qualifies as disabled and is eligible for benefits, "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 21-22, 124 S. Ct. 376, 157 L. Ed. 2d 333 (2003).

B. The ALJ's Findings

The ALJ found that Lowe-Malone's date last insured was March 31, 2001. AR 87. Lowe-Malone had the severe impairments of chronic severe back pain, facet arthropathy, and chronic pain syndrome. Id.

Through the date last insured, Lowe-Malone had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work. AR 88. She was able to lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She could sit, stand and/or walk for about 6 hours in an 8 hour workday with occasional postural limitations. Id. Through the date last insured, Lowe-Malone was capable of performing past relevant work as a graduate assistant and medical secretary. AR 91. Alternatively, she could have performed other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 92.

C. Treating Physician

Lowe-Malone contends that the ALJ improperly considered the opinion of a treating physician, Dr. Minehart.

An opinion of a treating physician is given more weight than the opinion of non-treating physicians. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007). To reject an uncontradicted opinion of a treating physician, an ALJ must state clear and convincing reasons that are supported by substantial evidence. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1216 (9th Cir. 2005). When a treating physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, "the ALJ may not reject this opinion without providing specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record. This can be done by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings." Orn, 495 F.3d at 632 (citations and quotation marks omitted). "When there is conflicting medical evidence, the Secretary must determine credibility and resolve the conflict." Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 956-57 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

When the ALJ declines to give a treating physician's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ considers several factors including the following: (1) length of the treatment relationship and frequency of examination;*fn1 (2) nature and extent of the treatment relationship;*fn2 (3) the amount of relevant evidence supporting the opinion and the quality of the explanation provided; (4) consistency with record as a whole; and (5) the ...


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