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Hector Ramos v. Michael J. Astrue

July 17, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheri Pym United States Magistrate Judge



On May 27, 2011, plaintiff Hector Ramos filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, seeking a review of a denial of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties' briefing is now complete, and the court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

Eleven issues are presented for decision here: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity; (2) whether the ALJ properly considered plaintiff's urological disorder in determining plaintiff's residual functional capacity; (3) whether "[t]he ALJ committed reversible error by failing to follow Social Security Ruling 82-62 along with Groeper v. Sullivan, 932 [F].2d 1232 (8th Cir. 1991) . . . at Step Four of the Sequential Evaluation Process"; (4) whether the ALJ properly refused to review and accept the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician; (5) whether the ALJ properly "reject[ed] medical opinion without explanation"; (6) whether the ALJ properly rejected plaintiff's treating physician's opinion that plaintiff was temporarily totally disabled; (7) whether the ALJ properly considered plaintiff's refusal of treatment in his decision; (8) whether the ALJ gave proper weight to the medical reports of plaintiff's treating physician; (9) whether the ALJ properly discounted plaintiff's credibility and subjective complaints based upon plaintiff's treating physician's recommendation of physical exercise; (10) whether the ALJ, at step five, failed to demonstrate that plaintiff has specific transferable skills; and (11) whether the ALJ erred by failing to assess the vocational expert's credibility. Pl.'s Mem. at 4-12; *fn1 Def.'s Mem. at 3-12.

Having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' written submissions and the Administrative Record ("AR"), the court finds that, as detailed herein, the ALJ provided a complete and proper assessment of plaintiff's residual functional capacity. In addition, the ALJ properly rejected both plaintiff's subjective complaints and the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician that plaintiff was temporarily totally disabled. The court further finds that the ALJ properly determined plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work, and that the ALJ met the Commissioner's step five burden to demonstrate that plaintiff can perform other jobs in the regional and national economy. Therefore, the court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.


Plaintiff, who was thirty-nine years old on the date of his June 23, 2010 administrative hearing, has a high school education and a certificate in plumbing. See AR at 31, 35. His past relevant work includes employment as a plumber apprentice. Id. at 46, 133-34.

On April 22, 2009, plaintiff protectively applied for DIB and SSI, alleging that he has been disabled since October 25, 2002 due to "Back injury, ultrascope surgery, arthritis, urology problem, [and] Psoriasis." See AR at 105-08, 109-15, 129, 141. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, after which he filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 58, 59, 60-65, 68.

On June 23, 2010, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. AR at 30-45, 57. The ALJ also heard testimony from Rheta Baron King, a vocational expert ("VE"). Id. at 46-53; see also id. at 101-04. On August 26, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's request for benefits. Id. at 8-20.

Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 25, 2002, his alleged disability onset date. AR at 11.

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from severe medically determinable impairments consisting of: degenerative disc disease of the lumbosacral and thoracic spines, status-post lumbar microdiscectomy, osteoarthritis of the hands, psoriasis, and overactive bladder syndrome without incontinence. AR at 11.

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix

1. AR at 11.

The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and *fn2 determined that he can perform sedentary work except: he can "occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds"; "he can occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, or crawl"; "he can perform gross and fine manipulations frequently"; "he cannot be exposed to extreme temperatures, heights, or dangerous moving machinery"; and he "must be able to change positions from sitting and/or standing every 30 minutes at will while remaining at his workstation." AR at 12 (emphasis omitted).

The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work. AR at 17.

At step five, the ALJ determined that "[t]ransferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that [plaintiff] is 'not disabled,' whether or not [plaintiff] has transferable job skills." AR at 18 (emphasis omitted). Because the ALJ determined that plaintiff suffers from exertional and non-exertional limitations, the ALJ enlisted the help of the VE to determine the extent the non-exertional limitations erode the unskilled sedentary occupational base. Id. at 18-19. Based upon plaintiff's vocational factors and RFC, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [plaintiff] can perform." Id. at 18 (emphasis omitted). The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 9, 19-20.

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. AR at 1-3, 4. The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


This court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2010). The findings and decision of the Social Security Administration must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001). But if the court determines that the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision to deny benefits. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001).

"Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035. Substantial evidence is such "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's 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 ALJ's conclusion." Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. The ALJ's decision "'cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998)). If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's decision, the reviewing court "'may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.'" Id. (quoting Matney ex rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)).


A. The ALJ Provided a Complete and Proper Assessment of Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity Plaintiff argues that "[t]he ALJ erred by improperly weighing the medical evidence of record and deriving an RFC that does not properly take into consideration all of the evidence." Pl.'s Mem. at 4; see Reply at 5-7. According to plaintiff, "[t]he ALJ merely dismisse[d] the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians and proceed[ed] to derive a completely arbitrary RFC of his own." Pl.'s Mem. at 5. Plaintiff specifically asserts that the ALJ "derive[d] his own arbitrary RFC for light [work]." Id. The court disagrees, for the following reasons.

In determining a claimant's RFC, an ALJ must consider all relevant evidence in the record, including medical records, lay evidence, and the effects of symptoms (including pain) that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable impairment. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 883 (9th Cir. 2006); see Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *5 (July 2, 1996); 20 *fn3 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3) (2012) (a claimant's assessed RFC is based upon all the relevant evidence in the case record), 416.945(a)(3) (2012) (same). Here, contrary to plaintiff's contention, the ALJ did not find plaintiff has the RFC to perform "light" work. See Pl.'s Mem. at 5. Instead, as discussed above, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: occasionally lift and carry no more than twenty pounds; frequently lift and carry no more than ten pounds; occasionally climb, balance, kneel, stoop, crouch, or crawl; frequently perform gross and fine manipulations; no exposure to extreme temperatures, heights, or dangerous moving machinery; and plaintiff must be able to change positions from sitting and standing every thirty minutes at will while remaining at his workstation. AR at 12. Having duly reviewed the record and the *fn4 parties' written submissions, the court finds that the ALJ's RFC finding is supported by substantial evidence.

In arriving at the RFC, the ALJ relied on the opinions of treating physician Dr. Robert W. Hunt (orthopaedic surgeon), consultative examining physician Dr. Homayoun Saeid, and consultative non-examining physician Dr. C. Friedman. See AR at 16-17; compare AR at 16-17, with AR at 216, 631, 637-39. Dr. Hunt opined that plaintiff "should observe prophylactic work restrictions for the lumbar spine of no heavy work and no weightbearing or sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time without the opportunity to change position for up to 30 minutes according to need." Id. at 216. Contrary to plaintiff's contention that "the ALJ explicitly ignored the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Timothy Hunt" (Pl.'s Mem. at 6; see Reply at 4-5), the ALJ explicitly discussed and gave "great weight" to Dr. Hunt's opinion regarding plaintiff's limitations. AR at 17; see also Lester v. Chater, 81 *fn5 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1996) ("As a general rule, more weight should be given to the opinion of a treating ...

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