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Laurie Arevalo v. Carolyn W. Colvin

March 29, 2013

LAURIE AREVALO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Paul L. Abrams United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff filed this action on June 6, 2012, seeking review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. The parties filed Consents to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge on June 8, 2012, and July 5, 2012. Pursuant to the Court's Order, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation on January 31, 2013, that addresses their positions concerning the disputed issues in the case. The Court has taken the Joint Stipulation under submission without oral argument.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on December 11, 1956. [Administrative Record ("AR") at 61.] She has a high school education [AR at 144] and past relevant work experience as a secretary. [AR at 141-42.]

On May 6, 2009, plaintiff filed her application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging that she has been unable to work since April 30, 2004, due to fibromyalgia, fatigue, depression, back problems, cholesterol problems, and plantar fasciitis, among other things. [AR at 61-67, 122-28, 139-46, 162-71, 198-205.] After her application was denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR at 63-78.] A hearing was held on December 9, 2010, at which time plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified on her own behalf. A medical expert and a vocational expert also testified. [AR at 31-60.] On January 4, 2011, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. [AR at 16-30.] On April 16, 2012, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. [AR at 1-5.] This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court has authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards. Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance -- it is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion." Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; see also Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the Court examines the administrative record as a whole, considering adverse as well as supporting evidence. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257; Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

Persons 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 twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

The Commissioner (or ALJ) follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995, as amended April 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. Id. If the claimant is not currently 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 non-disability is made and the claim is denied. Id. 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. Id. 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" to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied. Id. 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 this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. 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. The determination of this issue comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 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

In this case, at step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged disability onset date, April 30, 2004, through her date last insured of December 31, 2009. [AR at 18.] At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, disc protrusion of the lumbar region of the spine, and right and left shoulder arthritis. [Id.] At step three, the ALJ determined that through the date last insured, plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the impairments in the Listing. [AR at 20.] The ALJ further found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC")*fn1 to perform "light work" as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b).*fn2 Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff can occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift and/or carry 10 pounds; occasionally reach above shoulder level bilaterally; sit eight hours out of an eight-hour workday and stand and/or walk six hours out of an eight-hour workday, with the limitation that she "must be able to change positions every hour for one to three minutes"; and occasionally climb stairs, bend, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. However, the ALJ also found that plaintiff can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Id.] At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as an administrative clerk. [AR at 24.] Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from April 30, 2004, through December 31, 2009, her date last insured. [AR at 25.]

V.THE ALJ'S DECISION

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly: (1) determined that plaintiff does not have a severe mental impairment, and that her alleged impairments of pulmonic insufficiency and plantar fasciitis are not "severe"; (2) rejected plaintiff's treating physicians' opinions; (3) failed to discuss the opinion of a licensed clinical social worker; and (4) discounted plaintiff's credibility. [Joint Stipulation ("JS") ...


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