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Colette Mitton v. Michael J. Astrue

March 15, 2012

COLETTE MITTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John E. Mcdermott United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY PROCEEDINGS

On May 27, 2011, Colette Mitton ("Plaintiff or Claimant") filed a complaint seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security widow's insurance benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on September 6, 2011. On December 7, 2011, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). The matter is now ready for decision.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed and the case dismissed with prejudice.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is 53 year old female who applied for Social Security widow's insurance benefits on October 14, 2008, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2004. (AR 16.) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since that date. (AR 18.)

Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on January 9, 2009, and on reconsideration on April 15, 2009. (AR 16.) Plaintiff filed a timely request for hearing, which was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Charles E. Stevenson on March 31, 2010, in Orange, California. (AR 16.) Claimant appeared and testified at the hearing, and was represented by counsel. (AR 16.) Medical expert Dr. Samuel Hoxie (misidentified in the ALJ opinion as Sami A. Nafoosi, M.D.) and vocational expert ("VE") Stephen M. Berry also appeared and testified at the hearing. (AR 16.)

The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 7, 2010. (AR 16-22.) The Appeals Council denied the request for review on April 26, 2011. (AR 1-6.)

DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the issues Plaintiff raises as grounds for reversal and remand are as follows:

1. Whether the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians.

2. Whether the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Plaintiff's credibility and subjective symptoms.

3. Whether the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); see also DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991) (ALJ's disability determination must be supported by substantial evidence and based on the proper legal standards).

Substantial evidence means "'more than a mere scintilla,' but less than a preponderance." Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION

The Social Security Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or . . . can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

The first step is to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantial gainful activity. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, disability benefits will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit the claimant's ability to work. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). Third, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment is listed, or equivalent to an impairment listed, in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix I of the regulations. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. If the impediment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work. Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001). Before making the step four determination, the ALJ first must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC").*fn1 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The RFC must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including those that are not severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(2); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p. If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work or has no past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth step and must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing any other substantial gainful activity. Moore v. Apfel, 216 F.3d 864, 869 (9th Cir. 2000).

The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, consistent with the general rule that at all times the burden is on the claimant to establish his or her entitlement to benefits. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. Once this prima facie case is established by the claimant, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant may perform other gainful activity. Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006). To support a finding that a claimant is not disabled at step five, the Commissioner must provide evidence demonstrating that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can do, given his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(g). If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. Id.

To obtain widow insurance benefits, the claimant bears the burden of proving she is the widow of the deceased worker, has attained the age of 50, is unmarried (unless one of the exceptions in 20 CFR ยง 404.335(e) applies) and has a disability that began before the end of the prescribed period. (AR 16.) The prescribed period ends with the month before the month in which the claimant attains age 60, or, if earlier, either 7 years after the worker's death or 7 years after the widow was last entitled to survivor's benefits, whichever is later. (AR 16.) Claimant previously had been found to be the unmarried widow of the deceased insured worker and had attained the age of 50. (AR 18.) The claimant met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits set forth in Section 202(e) of the Social Security ...


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