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Vanessa G. Owens v. Michael J. Astrue

February 27, 2013

VANESSA G. OWENS, 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 her application for Social Security Supplemental Security Income benefits ("SSI"). 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 January 23, 2013, 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 June 8, 1961. (Administrative Record ("AR") 112.) She has a 12th-grade education. (AR 131.) From 1971 to 1986 Plaintiff worked as a trapeze artist and stunt performer, and from 1987 to 1995 she worked as a cashier. (AR 133.) She stopped working full time in 1995, when she gave birth to a special-needs child. (AR 26-27.) She last worked in 1999, as a home attendant. (AR 27, 33.) Plaintiff previously filed two unsuccessful applications for SSI, the most recent of which was denied on August 10, 2005. (AR 38.) On June 2, 2009, Plaintiff filed the instant application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of August 11, 2005. (AR 112-17.) Plaintiff claimed to be disabled because of degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, hypertension, progressive cervical spondylosis, bilateral knee pain, severe anxiety, migraine headaches, and panic attacks. (AR 125.) Her SSI application was initially denied on November 18, 2009. (AR 53-57.) Plaintiff then requested reconsideration (AR 60), and on April 29, 2010, her application was denied again (AR 61-65).

After Plaintiff's application was denied a second time, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 67.) A hearing was held on May 31, 2011, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified on her own behalf. (AR 23-34.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. (AR 45-50.) On June 23, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision determining that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 9-22.) On July 14, 2011, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 7-8.) On February 21, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-6.) 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 of legal error and 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 The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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 must be denied. § 416.920(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, the claimant is not disabled 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 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. § 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 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 and the claim must be denied. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 416.920; 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 since June 2, 2009, the date of her SSI application. (AR 14.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "lumbosacral strain, mild arthritis of the right knee, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 14-15.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform a full range of medium work.*fn2 (AR 15.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work of in-home support provider. (AR 17.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's migraine headaches were not a severe impairment and in evaluating the opinions of her treating physician. (J. Stip. at 3.) Neither of these contentions warrants reversal.*fn3

A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Considering the Opinions of Plaintiff's Treating Physician

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. V. Duane Sisson. (J. Stip. at 10-16.) Reversal is not warranted on this basis because the ALJ gave specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting Dr. Sisson's opinions, and ...


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