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Nicole C. Carter v. Commissioner of Social Security

April 18, 2013


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


Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Disabled Child Insurance Benefits under Title II, as well as Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI, respectively, 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 January 1, 1997, through the date of the final administrative decision. (Dkt. No. 15.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 16.) Plaintiff filed a reply brief. (Dkt. No. 17.)

For the reasons that follow, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part with respect to plaintiff's claim for SSI under Title XVI of the Act, remanding that claim for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, the court grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment with respect to plaintiff's Title II claims for DIB and Disabled Child Insurance Benefits.


Plaintiff was born on February 2, 1976, obtained a GED and certification as a medical assistant, and previously worked as a medical assistant, cashier, receptionist, and topless dancer.*fn2 (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 31, 48, 71, 73-76, 93-94, 110-15.) On November 13, 2009, plaintiff applied for DIB, Disabled Child Insurance Benefits, and SSI, alleging that she was unable to work as of January 1, 1997, primarily due to bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome. (AT 22, 40, 110-15, 271.) On January 21, 2010, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 22, 40, 110-12.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the determination was affirmed on August 5, 2010. (AT 22, 40, 113-15.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which took place on April 4, 2011. (AT 56-109.)

In a decision dated May 17, 2011, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from January 1, 1997, through the date of that decision. (AT 22-32, 40-50.)*fn3 The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on January 26, 2012. (AT 1-6.)

Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on March 13, 2012, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (Dkt. No. 1.)


Plaintiff has raised the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly discredited the opinion of plaintiff's treating psychiatrist; and (2) whether the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiff's statements regarding her symptoms and functional limitations.


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).


A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB, Disabled Child Insurance Benefits, and SSI pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework.*fn4

As an initial matter, the ALJ found that plaintiff remained insured for purposes of DIB through December 31, 2003. (AT 24, 42.) The ALJ also noted that plaintiff would have to establish disability prior to February 2, 1998, the date she attained age 22, to be eligible for Disabled Child Insurance Benefits. (AT 22, 32.)

At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 1997, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date. (AT 24, 42.) The ALJ essentially found that the work plaintiff had performed since January 1, 1997, did not meet the requirements of substantial gainful activity. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: depression and anxiety. (AT 25, 42.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or ...

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