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Lawrence Eric Henry v. Michael J. Astrue

October 2, 2012

LAWRENCE ERIC HENRY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, 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 Social Security Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge pursuant to

28 U.S.C. § 636(c). This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation, filed August 27, 2012, which the Court has taken 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 1, 1989. (Administrative Record ("AR") 99.) He has an 11th-grade education and no work experience. (AR 49, 66, 541, 559, 587.) As a child, Plaintiff received SSI benefits because of various learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. (See AR 150.) After Plaintiff turned 18, his eligibility was reviewed under the rules for determining disability in adults, and on January 9, 2008, he was found to be no longer disabled under those standards. (AR 149.) Plaintiff requested a review of the agency's determination; a State Agency Disability Hearing Officer upheld the determination on August 13, 2008. (AR 61-70.)

Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 70.) A hearing was held on June 14, 2010, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified on his own behalf. (AR 551-98.) Medical Expert Dr. Betty Borden and Vocational Expert ("VE") Gregory Jones also testified, as did Plaintiff's mother, Charlene Givens. (AR 573-98.) In a written decision issued on July 8, 2010, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 16-24.) On August 3, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 5-7.) This action 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 ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free from 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. 1996). "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 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 A claimant who receives SSI as a child and who remained eligible for SSI for the month before the month in which he turned 18 must have his eligibility for benefits redetermined after turning 18. 20 C.F.R. § 416.987(a). The ALJ may find that the claimant is not disabled as an adult even though the claimant was previously found to be disabled as a child. Id. In evaluating a claimant's continuing disability after age 18, the ALJ follows a modified version of the five-step sequential evaluation process used for adult claimants. Id.; § 416.920(c)-(h). The ALJ does not apply the rule in § 416.920(b) to determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. § 416.987(b). The ALJ does apply the second through fifth steps of the sequential evaluation process, however. Id. The second step requires the ALJ 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 not disabled is made and the claim must be denied. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the ALJ 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. § 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 ALJ 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. § 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 ALJ then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because he can perform other substantial gainful work in the national economy. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 416.987(b); § 416.920.

B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff turned 18 on December 31, 2006, was eligible for SSI benefits as a child for the month preceding December 2006, and was previously found no longer disabled as of January 1, 2008, based on a redetermination of his disability as an adult. (AR 18.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of borderline intellectual functioning, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, a history of a learning disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and asthma. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 18-19.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: "no work requiring more than simple repetitive tasks; more than brief and casual contact with co-workers and supervisors; any exposure to heat, cold, hazardous machinery or dangerous heights; and being responsible for the safety of others." (AR 20.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (AR 23.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (AR 23-24.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 24.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in (1) rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; (2) finding Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony not credible; and (3) failing to consider the combined effects of Plaintiff's impairments when determining his RFC. (J. Stip. at 3.)

A. The ALJ Did Not Err in His Consideration of the Opinion of Plaintiff's Treating Physician

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting his treating physician Dr. Jeanne Hong's opinion that because of the "culmination" of Plaintiff's impairments, "it would prove to be difficult for [Plaintiff] to find and maintain employment." (J. Stip. at 3-17; AR 519.) Reversal is not warranted on this basis because Dr. Hong did not opine that Plaintiff was unable to work, and ...


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