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Richard Alan Benjamin v. Michael J. Astrue

November 9, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Richard Benjamin seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed and the matter is dismissed with prejudice.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born on June 28, 1960, and was 48 years old at the time he filed his application for benefits. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 107.) He has a tenth grade education and no relevant work experience. (AR at 16, 111, 115.) Plaintiff filed his SSI application on May 7, 2009, alleging disability since July 1, 1996, due to back pain.*fn1 (AR at 100, 107, 110.)

Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on September 10, 2009, and upon reconsideration on April 15, 2010. (AR at 48-52, 54-59.) An administrative hearing was held on June 28, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") William Mueller, during which Plaintiff testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). (AR at 22-43.)

On July 27, 2011, ALJ Mueller issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 7-18.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: musculoskeletal disorders of the spine, affective disorder and anxiety. (AR at 12.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet, or were not medically equal to, one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) "except the claimant should have a sit stand option and would be limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks." (AR at 13.) The ALJ concluded, based upon the testimony of the VE, that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff was capable of performing, such as electronic worker, parking lot booth attendant and ticket taker, and was therefore not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). (AR at 17-18.)

On April 27, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR at 1-4.) Plaintiff then timely commenced this action for judicial review. On October 26, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's RFC. (Joint Stip. at 4.) Plaintiff seeks remand for a new administrative hearing. (Joint Stip. at 15.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. at 16.)

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's or ALJ's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1990); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); 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 v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. 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 support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Discussion

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in determining that Plaintiff retained an RFC for a limited range of light work with a sit-stand option. (Joint Stip. at 4.) Plaintiff argues that his chronic low back pain prevents him from sustaining full time work at any exertional level. (Id. at 5.) Alternatively, Plaintiff contends that at best, he is limited to sedentary work, which would mandate a disability finding under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. (Joint Stip. at 8.)

A claimant's RFC is what he is capable of doing despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1); Cooper v. Sullivan, 880 F.2d 1152, 1155 n.5 (9th Cir. 1989). "RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). An RFC assessment is ultimately an administrative finding reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(2). However, an RFC determination is based on all of the relevant evidence, including the diagnoses, treatment, observations, and opinions of medical sources, such as treating and examining physicians. Id.

Although Plaintiff cites to medical records that reference Plaintiff's chronic low back pain (Joint Stip. at 4), he has completely failed to show how this back pain prevents him from sustaining full time work at the light exertional level. The ALJ properly referred to the medical evidence in the record in reaching his RFC determination. (AR at 13-16.) This evidence did not demonstrate that Plaintiff's low back pain was so severe as to prevent Plaintiff from sustaining light work with a sit stand option.

Indeed, the record shows that the ALJ gave Plaintiff the benefit of the doubt in determining that Plaintiff was capable only of light work with a sit-stand option. One of the State Agency reviewing physicians, Dr. J. Ross, M.D., concluded that Plaintiff retained an RFC for medium work (AR at 217), while another State Agency physician, A. Lizarraras, concluded that Plaintiff did not have any severe physical impairment. (AR at 167.) The ALJ properly synthesized the medical record and the conclusions of the reviewing physicians in assessing Plaintiff with an RFC for light work with a sit-stand ...

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