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Shirley Renee Martin v. Michael J. Astrue

February 12, 2013

SHIRLEY RENEE MARTIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge

ORDER

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act").*fn1 In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from April 29, 2009, the date that her SSI application was filed, through the date of the final administrative decision. (Dkt. No. 18.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 21.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (Dkt. No. 24.) For the reasons that follow, the court denies plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and enters judgment for the Commissioner.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on April 7, 1958, has a high school education, and does not have past relevant work.*fn2 (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 26-27, 33, 128, 132.) On April 29, 2009, plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that she was unable to work as of July 1, 2006, primarily due to a stroke, high blood pressure, and difficulties with her vision and balancing. (AT 17, 68, 72, 128, 137, 140.) Plaintiff had been in a long-term abusive relationship and also alleged depression and anxiety attributable to post-traumatic stress disorder. (AT 48-49, 175.) On August 24, 2009, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 68.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the determination was affirmed on January 28, 2010. (AT 72.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which took place on November 10, 2010. (AT 17, 30.)

In a decision dated December 21, 2010, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from the SSI application date of April 29, 2009, through the date of that decision. (AT 17-28.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on November 10, 2011. (AT 1-6.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on January 5, 2012, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Dkt. No. 1.)

II. ISSUES PRESENTED

Plaintiff has raised the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence concerning plaintiff's physical and mental limitations;

(2) whether the ALJ erroneously failed to include social functioning limitations in plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (3) whether the ALJ erred at step five by relying on the "Grids" and failing to obtain vocational expert ("VE") testimony.*fn3

III. LEGAL STANDARD

The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007), quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.*fn4 At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 29, 2009, plaintiff's SSI application date. (AT 19.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following medically severe combination of impairments: history of stroke, left eye visual loss, hypertension, history of kidney disease, borderline intellectual functioning, organic mental disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and a history of polysubstance abuse. (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.)

Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's RFC as follows: After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except she cannot engage in tasks requiring good binocular vision or depth perception and should avoid hazards, such as heights and heavy machinery. She is limited to work involving no more than simple repetitive tasks.

(AT 21.)

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work. (AT 26.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined, in reliance on the "Grids" (see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2), that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (AT 27.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from plaintiff's SSI application date of April 29, 2009, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 28.)

B. Plaintiff's Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner's Determinations

1. Whether the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence concerning plaintiff's physical and mental limitations

The weight given to medical opinions depends in part on whether they are proffered by treating, examining, or non-examining professionals. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201-02 (9th Cir. 2001); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 830 (9th Cir. 1995). Ordinarily, more weight is given to the opinion of a treating professional, who has a greater opportunity to know and ...


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