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Terri Skiko v. Michael J. Astrue

May 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jennifer L. Thurston United States Magistrate Judge


Terri Lynn Skiko ("Plaintiff") asserts she is entitled to disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in finding Plaintiff‟s testimony lacked credibility. Therefore, Plaintiff seeks review of the administrative decision denying her claims for benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the administrative decision is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on May 2, 2008, alleging disability beginning December 15, 2007. AR at 84-97. The Social Security Administration denied her claims initially and upon reconsideration. Id. at 38-52. After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before an ALJ on May 10, 2010. Id. at 21-37. The ALJ determined 2 Plaintiff was not disabled, and issued an order denying benefits on July 10, 2010. Id. at 5-19. Plaintiff 3 requested review of the ALJ‟s decision by the Appeals Council of Social Security, which was denied 4 on February 11, 2011. Id. at 1-4. Therefore, the ALJ‟s determination became the decision of the 5 Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). 6


District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, 9 such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner‟s decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ‟s determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938). The record as a whole must be considered, because "[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ‟s conclusion." Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if: 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish disability. Terry v. 2 Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). When a claimant establishes a prima facie case of 3 disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other 4 substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984). 5


To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant‟s alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920 (a)-(f). The process 8 requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the 9 period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. In making these determinations, the ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion (hearing) testimony.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.927, 416.927.

A. Relevant Medical Evidence

Dr. Helen Patterson completed a psychiatric review technique on July 21, 2008. AR at 268-81.

She observed Plaintiff suffered from an affective disorder and substance abuse addiction, which was in early remission. Id. at 268, 274. Dr. Patterson found Plaintiff did not have any restrictions in her activities of daily living; mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; and mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. Id. at 276. Specifically, Dr. Patterson noted Plaintiff was "able to care for her own needs" and "[a]ble to prepare simple meals." Id. at 278. She noted Plaintiff needed to be reminded to do chores and could not concentrate sufficiently to drive, although Plaintiff drove herself to her doctor appointment. Id. In addition, Plaintiff had recently overdosed, but had not taken any Vicodin since that time. Id. Based upon these observations, Dr. Patterson opined Plaintiff was able to perform simple repetitive tasks. Id. at 280-81.

On October 17, 2008, Dr. Cynthia Fowler performed a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. AR at 301-05. Plaintiff‟s chief complaint was that she was "mentally unstable." Id. at 301. Plaintiff told Dr. Fowler she had "always been depressed," but "her symptoms worsened over the past year."

Id. Further Plaintiff reported she had "low energy, poor concentration and focus, and suicidal ideation 2 without current intent." Id. Plaintiff informed Dr. Fowler that she had ""minor‟ improvement with the 3 medications." Id. at 302. She had a Vicodin dependence, but reported her last use was on March 20, 4 2008. Id. at 302-03. With regard to her activities of daily living, Plaintiff reported she went to the 5 store if her mother asked, played with her dogs, and helped with chores. Id. However, Plaintiff told 6

Dr. Fowler that her family did not allow her to do any cooking because "they do not want her around 7 ...

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