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Stella Vargas v. Michael J. Astrue

September 25, 2012


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


Stella Vargas ("Plaintiff") asserts she is entitled to supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the administrative law judge ("ALJ") erred in assessing her credibility. Therefore, Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the administrative decision denying her claim for benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is AFFIRMED, and Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 16) is GRANTED.


Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on October 24, 2008, alleging disability beginning January 15, 1991. (Doc. 12-6 at 2). The Social Security Administration denied her claim initially and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 12-5). After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before an ALJ at a hearing held May 18, 2010. (Doc. 12-3 at 36). The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act, and issued an order denying benefits on July 30, 2010. Id. at 23-33. Plaintiff requested a review by the Appeals Council of Social Security, which 2 found no reason to review the ALJ's decision on February 29, 2011. Id. at 10. Therefore, the ALJ's 3 determination became the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").

Plaintiff initiated this action on December 16, 2011, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 1). On July 23, 2012, Plaintiff filed her opening brief in the action, seeking review of 6 the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 15). Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on August 29, 2012, asserting the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. (Doc. 16).


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, 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. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). When a claimant establishes a prima facie case of 5 disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to engage in other 6 substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984). 7


To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920 (a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the 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. The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion (hearing) testimony. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927, 416.929.

A. Relevant Medical Opinions

Dr. Steven Stoltz performed a consultative internal medicine evaluation on December 11, 2008. (Doc. 12-8 at 25-30). Plaintiff told Dr. Stoltz she had right shoulder pain since August 2008, which was "made worse with lifting or reaching out for objects." Id. at 26. Dr. Stoltz observed Plaintiff "was alert, cooperative and well oriented in all spheres." Id. at 27. Plaintiff's range of motion was within normal limits in all extremities, with the exception of flexion and abduction of her right shoulder and left knee, with which she had a "slight" decrease in motion. Id. at 28. Dr. Stoltz determined Plaintiff's strength was "5/5 in all extremities." Id. at 29. Based upon the examination, Dr. Stoltz opined Plaintiff could "do occasional reaching overhead with the right hand and frequent reaching in all other directions." Id. According to Dr. Stoltz, Plaintiff had "no other restrictions." Id.

Dr. Ekram Michiel conducted a psychiatric evaluation on December 20, 2008. (Doc. 12-8 at 35-37). Plaintiff told Dr. Michiel she had depression and anxiety. Id. at 35. In addition, Plaintiff reported her brothers ...

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