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Mary Yrigoyen v. Michael J. Astrue

May 2, 2012


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


Plaintiff Mary Yrigoyen seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") 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 December 26, 1971. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 65.) She has a tenth grade education and has work experience as a store clerk. (AR at 211, 215.) Plaintiff filed her application for SSI benefits on April 30, 2008, alleging disability beginning November 30, 2005, due to back and arm pain and arthritis. (AR at 65, 210.) Her application was denied initially on June 13, 2008 and upon reconsideration on June 27, 2008. (AR at 67-70, 75-79.) Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Joseph D. Schloss held administrative hearings on September 23, 2009, March 2, 2010 and May 20, 2010. Plaintiff, represented by an attorney, testified as did a vocational expert ("VE") and a medical expert. (AR at 13-63.)

ALJ Schloss issued an unfavorable decision on November 22, 2010. (AR at 389-397.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: morbid obesity, arthritis and diabetes. (AR at 391.) 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. (AR at 392.)

The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b) as follows: "[T]he claimant could stand and/or walk for 1 hour in an 8-hour work day, 10 to 15 minutes at a time; she could sit for 8 hours in an 8-hour workday, but changing positions every 1 to 3 minutes per hour; the claimant would be allowed to elevate her legs 6 inches above floor level and stand and stretch as needed; the claimant could lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; the claimant could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; the claimant could not work at heights or balance; she could not do forceful gripping, grasping, or twisting but she could do fine manipulation, such as keyboarding; the claimant could do frequent gross manipulation, such as opening drawers and carrying files; she could occasionally do flexion and extension at the elbows for both upper extremities." (AR at 392.)

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 counter clerk, school bus monitor, and election clerk. (AR at 396-397.) Therefore, he found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (AR at 397.)

The Appeals Council denied review on July 19, 2011 (AR at 1-4), and Plaintiff commenced this action for judicial review. On April 20, 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 carry the Administration's Burden at Step 5 of the sequential evaluation process. (Joint Stip. at 3.) Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse and order an award of benefits, or in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. at 21.) 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 4.) Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing to the following symptoms and functional limitations: she has cysts around the heels of her feet and throbbing pain on the bottom left heel; she has numbness in both hands; she can only walk about five steps before having to sit down; she had surgery in her left hand but she still has numbness in her left elbow and hand; and she uses inhalers and takes pain medication. (AR at 33-34, 47-55.)

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 ...

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