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Michele L. Ochsner v. Michael J. Astrue

October 16, 2012

MICHELE L. OCHSNER,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jean Rosenbluthu.s. Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER AND DISMISSING ACTION

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Social Security 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 parties filed a Joint Stipulation on September 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 12, 1965. (Administrative Record ("AR") 124.) She earned a bachelor's degree in Health Science and received certifications as a medical assistant and laser technician. (AR 71.) Before the onset of her alleged disability, on March 24, 2009, when she stopped working, Plaintiff worked for two and a half years as a coordinator at a wellness program and as a laser technician and medical assistant for over 10 years before that. (AR 71-73, 124, 134.)

On February 11, 2010, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she was unable to work because of sarcoidosis (systemic organ inflammation), fibromyalgia (chronic soft-tissue and joint pain), and depression. (AR 124-25; see id. at 181-82.) After Plaintiff's application was denied, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 99.) The ALJ held the hearing on April 21, 2011, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (AR 66-67.) On July 5, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled because she could perform her past relevant work. (AR 16-35.) On December 14, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-4.) This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the decision of the Commissioner to deny benefits. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's decision when the ALJ's findings were based on legal error or were not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supported a finding, the court must "consider the record as a whole, weighing both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (internal quotation marks omitted). If the evidence could reasonably support either affirming or reversing that conclusion, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, and the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21.

IV. DISABILITY EVALUATION

Claimants 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 follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(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 is denied. § 404.1520(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 her ability to do basic work activities; if not, a finding of not disabled is made. § 404.1520(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). If the claimant's impairment does not meet an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving that she 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 she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. Id.; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity from the onset of her alleged disability, March 24, 2009, through the time of the ALJ's adverse decision, in July 2011. (AR 21.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of mixed connective-tissue disorder including sarcoid-like granulomas, lymphadenopathy (inflammation of lymph nodes), sarcoidosis, and asthma. (AR 21-23.) The ALJ concluded, however, that her alleged mental impairment of depression was not severe, a finding Plaintiff does not challenge. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 23.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work,*fn2 limited by her (1) inability to perform above-shoulder activities or work in an environment with excess airborne irritants, (2) numbness in hands and feet, (3) nausea, and (4) "moderate" pain in joints, muscles, head, shoulders, abdomen, and extremities. (Id.) The ALJ did not include Plaintiff's additional asserted limitations of dizziness, hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, fatigue, and depression because he found them "slight" in nature. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a medical assistant and the equivalent of an esthetician and case manager.*fn3 (AR 31.) The ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff was not disabled and accordingly did not reach step five. (Id.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly (1) discounted the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Christine Leehealey, by giving "little weight" to Dr. Leehealey's RFC assessment (J. Stip. 5-12)*fn4 and (2) found that Plaintiff was not credible as to the severity of her conditions and limitations (id. at 14-19).

A. Substantial Evidence Supported the ALJ's Rejection of Dr. Leehealey's RFC Assessment

1. Applicable law

Three types of physicians may offer opinions in social security cases: "(1) those who treat the claimant (treating physicians); (2) those who examine but do not treat the claimant (examining physicians); and (3) those who neither examine nor treat the claimant (non-examining physicians)." Lester, 81 F.3d at 830. The opinions of treating physicians are generally afforded more weight than those of nontreating physicians because treating physicians are employed to cure and have a greater opportunity to know and observe the claimant. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1285. The weight given a treating physician's opinion depends on whether it was supported by sufficient medical data and was consistent with other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). If a treating physician's opinion was well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and was not inconsistent with other substantial evidence from the record, it should be given controlling weight and should be rejected only for "clear and convincing" reasons. Lester, 81 F.3d at 830; § 404.1527(c)(2). When a treating physician's opinion conflicts with other medical evidence or was not supported by clinical or laboratory findings, the ALJ must provide only "specific and legitimate reasons" for ...


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