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Donna J. Smith v. Michael J. Astrue

March 27, 2012

DONNA J. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

Plaintiff, who is represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act").*fn1 In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") in this case erred by finding that: (1) plaintiff failed to meet her burden to show that her alleged impairments were "severe" within the meaning of the Act; and (2) plaintiff was not credible to the extent that her testimony conflicted with the finding that plaintiff lacked a severe impairment or combination of impairments. (See generally Pl.'s Memo. of P. & A. In Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. at 1, Dkt. No. 12.) Plaintiff asks the court to remand this matter to the agency so that these alleged errors may be addressed. The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 13.) For the reasons stated below, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

A. Procedural History

On July 17, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Income ("SSI")

benefits that alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2003. (Admin. Tr. ("AT") 92.) Plaintiff subsequently amended her onset date to July 17, 2007, the date that plaintiff applied for benefits. (AT 137.)

The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 54-55, 58-63, 65-70.) Despite being represented by counsel, plaintiff refused to attend a consultative medical examination arranged by the agency or provide sufficient information to the agency in support of her application for SSI benefits. (See AT 58, 65-66.)

Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claim on August 21, 2009. (AT 20-53, 72.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated December 18, 2009, the ALJ denied plaintiff's application for benefits on the basis of a finding at the second step of the five-step sequential analysis that plaintiff did not have a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments within the meaning of the Act.*fn3 (See AT 11-16.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (See AT 1-3.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required sequential evaluation and concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since July 17, 2007, which was plaintiff's amended disability onset date and the date that plaintiff filed her application for benefits. (AT 13.)

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had "the following medically determinable impairments: asthma, high blood pressure, Graves disease,*fn4 obesity and bilateral knee minor osteoarthritis." (AT 13.) The ALJ also acknowledged in her decision that plaintiff alleged disability due to irritable bowl syndrome, vertigo, and "MRSA (staph infection)."*fn5 (See AT 14.) However, the ALJ concluded at step two of the analysis that: "The claimant 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 (20 CFR 416.921 et seq.)." (Id.) In finding no "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ also discounted the credibility of plaintiff's statements, finding that plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [her] symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with finding that the [plaintiff] has no severe impairment or combination of impairments." (AT 14; see also id. at 14-16.) As a result of the finding of a lack of any severe impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ ultimately found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (See AT 16.)

II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is (1) free of legal error, and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bruce v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 1113, 1115 (9th Cir. 2009). This standard of review has been described as "highly deferential." Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). "'Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)); accord Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690. "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039; see also Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2008) ("[T]he ALJ is the final arbiter with respect to resolving ambiguities in the medical evidence."). Findings of fact that are supported by substantial evidence are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also McCarthy v. Apfel, 221 F.3d 1119, 1125 (9th Cir. 2000). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222; see also Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008) ("'Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation,' the ALJ's decision should ...


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