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Wyatt v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

June 25, 2013

LISA JO WYATT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER AFFIRMING THE COMMISSIONER

JEAN ROSENBLUTH, Magistrate Judge.

I. PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications for Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and 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 March 14, 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 August 31, 1964. (Administrative Record ("AR") 110, 113.) She completed high school and one year of college. (AR 37, 159.) She previously worked as a bus driver and a food demonstrator at grocery stores and markets. (AR 38-39, 139, 155.)

On September 22, 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since March 24, 2005, because of several medical conditions, including neck and back injuries, right-elbow tendonitis, and knee problems. (AR 39-40, 110-26, 154.) After her applications were denied, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 69.) A hearing was held on July 22, 2010, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational expert. (AR 34-49.) In a written decision issued August 24, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 22-29.) On February 28, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 1-5.) 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 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, a finding of not disabled is made and the claim must be denied. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 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")[2] to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. §§ 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

At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since March 24, 2005. (AR 24.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of obesity and degeneration of the cervical spine, lumbar spine, and bilateral knees. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of light work, [3] specifically, she could "stand and walk for no more than six of eight hours, cumulatively"; "sit for no more than six of eight hours, cumulatively"; only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and never be exposed to unprotected heights or moving machinery. (Id.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (AR 28-29.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 29.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ's RFC finding and credibility determination lacked the support of substantial evidence. (J. Stip. at 4.)

A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Determining Plaintiff's RFC

Plaintiff contends that in determining her RFC, the ALJ erred by relying on the opinions of the consulting and reviewing physicians because they were rendered before her right-knee surgery and updated MRIs of her cervical and lumbar spine. (J. Stip. at 5.) Plaintiff further argues that in light of those later medical records, the ALJ should have "utilized the services of a medical expert" or "arranged for an updated orthopedic consultative examination." (J. Stip. at 5-6.) Remand is not warranted on this basis, however, because the ALJ properly determined Plaintiff's RFC.

1. Applicable law

A district court must uphold an ALJ's RFC assessment when the ALJ has applied the proper legal standard and substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the decision. Bayliss v. Barnhart , 427 F.3d 1211, 1217 (9th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider all the medical evidence in the record and "explain in [his or her] decision the weight given to... [the] opinions from treating sources, nontreating sources, and other nonexamining sources." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(2)(ii), 416.927(e)(2)(ii). In making an RFC determination, the ALJ may consider those limitations for which there is support in the record and need not consider properly rejected evidence or subjective complaints. See Bayliss , 427 F.3d at 1217 (upholding ALJ's RFC determination because "the ALJ took into account those limitations for which there was record support that did not depend on [claimant's] subjective complaints"). The Court must consider the ALJ's decision in the context of "the ...


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