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Paula F. Gonzalez v. Michael J. Astrue

April 25, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Paula Gonzalez seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed and the action is dismissed with prejudice.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on June 7, 1958. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 65.) She earned a GED and has work experience as a care giver and real estate agent. (AR at 171, 173.) Plaintiff filed her applications for benefits on January 23, 2009, alleging disability beginning January 31, 2008, due to hepatitis and affective mood disorder. (AR at 65, 66.) Her application was denied initially on May 14, 2009 and upon reconsideration on September 9, 2009. (AR at 79-82, 86-91.) An administrative hearing was held on October 19, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Sharilyn Hopson. Plaintiff, represented by a non-attorney representative, testified as did vocational and medical experts. (AR at 27-64.)

ALJ Hopson issued an unfavorable decision on November 22, 2010. (AR at 8-17.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disorder in L5-S1 of the lumbar spine; early osteoarthritis of the right hip; previous cruciate ligament repair; early osteoarthritis of the right knee; hepatitis C; status-post surgery of the left knee; and depression. (AR at 10.) However, these severe impairments did not meet the requirements of a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)

The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) as follows: "the claimant can lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; she can stand, walk, and/or sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks such as every 2 hours with a sit or stand option (she should be allowed to change positions with no anticipated loss of productivity time); she can only occasionally push and/or pull with her left leg, but no limitations with her right leg; the claimant can occasionally bend, kneel, crouch, crawl and stoop; she can climb stairs but she cannot climb ladders, work at heights or balance; the claimant can do simple and repetitive tasks; she could have occasional public contact; but she is precluded from tasks that are fast-paced work or requiring hypervigilance." (AR at 11.) The ALJ concluded that although Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work, there were jobs in the national economy which Plaintiff could perform, such as office helper, hand packager, and a small products assembler II. (AR at 16.) Therefore, she found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (AR at 17.)

The Appeals Council denied review on August 25, 2011 (AR at 1-3), and Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review. On April 10, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues, including the following claims of error: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating Plaintiff's credibility and subjective testimony; and (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider the lay testimony. (Joint Stip. at 2.) Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse and order an award of benefits, or in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 17.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Id.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 1999); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)(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. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Discussion

A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Subjective Symptom Testimony

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting her subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 3.) Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing to the following symptoms and functional limitations: she suffers from pain due to problems with the discs in her neck and back; she has hepatitis C, which makes her lethargic; she suffers from depression and has twice attempted suicide; she has nuts and bolts in her knee that have fallen apart and she needs similar surgery in her other knee; and she can sit and/or stand for about 20 minutes before having to change positions. (AR at 31-33, 49-53.)

To determine whether a claimant's testimony about subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Lingenfelter 504 F.3d at 1035-36). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged pain or other symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036. "[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain." Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc). To the extent that an individual's claims of functional limitations and restrictions due to alleged pain is reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the case, the claimant's allegations will be credited. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *2 (explaining 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(4), 416.929(c)(4)).*fn1

Unless there is affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must provide specific, clear and convincing reasons for discrediting a claimant's complaints. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 883. "General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722 (quoting Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ must consider a claimant's work record, observations of medical providers and third parties with knowledge of the claimant's limitations, aggravating factors, functional restrictions caused by symptoms, effects of medication, and the claimant's daily activities. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1283-84 & n.8 (9th Cir. 1996). ...

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