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Joann Ambrose v. Michael J. Astrue

January 9, 2013

JOANN AMBROSE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Joann Ambrose seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). 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 May 25, 1950, and was 57 years old at the time she filed her application for benefits. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 187.) She has a high school education and has relevant work experience as a medical biller and medical billing manager. (AR at 168, 173.) Plaintiff filed her DIB application on February 12, 2008, alleging disability beginning January 10, 2003, due to degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, right and left shoulder pain, left hand numbness, and degenerative joint disease of the right knee. (AR at 156-57, 167.)

Plaintiff's application was denied initially on April 30, 2008 and upon reconsideration on August 29, 2008. (AR at 83-87, 89-94.) An administrative hearing was held on May 11, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Wendy Weber. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, as did a medical expert and a vocational expert. (AR at 49-80.)

On July 10, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 34-42.) The ALJ found that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: multi-level degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine without radiculopathy, bulging discs in the lumbar spine, rotator cuff tear of the left shoulder, tendinitis of the right shoulder, and chondromalacia and degenerative joint disease of the right knee. (AR at 36.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet, and were not medically equal to, one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 37.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the following residual functional capacity ("RFC"): lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently with the right upper extremity but only carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently with the left upper extremity; sit for six hours and stand or walk for six hours during an eight-hour work day; only occasionally perform pedal operations with the right lower extremity; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; only occasionally stoop, crouch, or kneel; never walk on uneven terrain; never reach at or above shoulder-level or perform forceful grasping or torquing with the left upper extremity; and only frequently flex, extend, or move side-to-side with the neck. (AR at 37.)

The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a medical coder/biller and office manager, and therefore Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). (AR at 30-31.)

On May 1, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR at 1-4.) Plaintiff then timely commenced this action for judicial review. On December 21, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to: (1) perform a proper credibility analysis; (2) consider the statement of Plaintiff's husband; and (3) give proper weight to the opinion of three of Plaintiff's treating physicians. (Joint Stip. at 2-3.) Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's denial of her application and payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for a new administrative hearing. (Joint Stip. at 31.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. at 31-32.)

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

A. The ALJ Properly Evaluated Plaintiff's Subjective Symptom Testimony

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting her subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 3.) To determine whether a claimant's testimony about subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035-36 (9th Cir. 2007)). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged pain or other symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036. "[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain." Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc). To the extent that an individual's claims of functional limitations and restrictions due to alleged pain is reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the case, the claimant's allegations will be credited. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 at *2 (explaining 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(4), 416.929(c)(4)).*fn1

Unless there is affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must provide specific, clear and convincing reasons for discrediting a claimant's complaints. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 883. "General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722 (quoting Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ must consider a claimant's work record, observations of medical providers and third parties with knowledge of claimant's limitations, aggravating factors, functional restrictions caused by symptoms, effects of medication, and the claimant's daily activities. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1283-84 & n.8 (9th Cir. 1996). ...


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