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Ronnie R. Lares v. Michael J. Astrue

June 29, 2012

RONNIE R. LARES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jean Rosenbluth U.S. Magistrate Judge

I. PROCEEDINGS

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER

Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The matter is before the Court on the parties' pleadings: Plaintiff filed his opening brief on April 24, 2012, and Defendant filed his answering brief on May 24, 2012. On June 11, 2012, the Court struck Plaintiff's Reply because his request to file it late did not comply with the Local Rules. The Court has taken the matter under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this action is dismissed.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on January 8, 1971, and has a high school education. (Administrative Record ("AR") 172, 602.) On January 3, 2007, he applied for DIB (AR 172) and SSI (AR 175). After the claim was initially denied, Plaintiff sought review by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 103.) The ALJ held a hearing on October 31, 2008, at which Plaintiff testified. (AR 37-54.) On January 12, 2009, the ALJ issued a written ruling denying benefits. (AR 82.) On May 14, 2009, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ to reconsider various parts of his decision that are not at issue here. (AR 94.) The ALJ held another hearing on January 7, 2010, at which Plaintiff again testified. (AR 55-77.) The ALJ denied benefits in a written ruling issued February 22, 2010. (AR 18.) The Appeals Council denied review on April 21, 2011. (AR 3.) This appeal followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (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. 1998). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

People are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a severe physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

A. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); § 416.920(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i); § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of non-disability is made and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient RFC to perform his past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving that he is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established.

Id. If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because he can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); § 416.920(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 404.1520; § 416.920; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 23, 2005, the onset date of the alleged disability. (AR 23.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc and joint disease involving the lumbar spine as well as carpal tunnel syndrome. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments. (AR 26.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 enabled him to perform "light work" as follows: lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can occasionally climb ramps or stairs; he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl; and he can do no repetitive forceful grasping with his right hand. (Id.) At step five, the ALJ found that ...


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