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Udell v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

August 7, 2013

PAULA J. UDELL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARILYN L. HUFF, District Judge.

On October 19, 2012, Plaintiff Paula J. Udell ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"). (Doc. No. 1.) On February 5, 2013, Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to reverse the final decision of the Commissioner, or, in the alternative, vacate the decision and remand the case to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings. (Doc. No. 10.) On March 12, 2013, the Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment and response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion. (Doc. Nos. 14, 15.) On March 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendant's cross-motion and a reply to Defendant's opposition. (Doc. Nos. 18-19.) For the following reasons, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, grants the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and affirms the decision of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").


On July 16, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income pursuant to Title II and Part A of Title XVIII of the Social Security Act. (Doc. No. 8, Administrative Record ("AR") 153-54.) Plaintiff claimed to have been disabled since January 1, 1996. (Id.) The state agency that makes disability decisions for the Commissioner (20 C.F.R. § 406.1503) denied Plaintiff's application initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. (AR 17-19, 82-96.)

On March 11, 2011, Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at a hearing. (AR 49-79.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Plaintiff's brother, her sister-in-law, and a vocational expert. (Id.) Plaintiff did not call a medical expert to testify and only presented the ALJ with her medical records, most of which were generated after the date she was last insured. (Id.)

On March 25, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 30-41.) The ALJ first found that Plaintiff had not engaged in gainful activity since January 1, 1996, the alleged onset date, through her date last insured of September 30, 2000. (AR 35.) Before January 1, 1996, Plaintiff worked as a school teacher for 19 years. (AR 36-37.) The ALJ also noted that, after the alleged onset date, Plaintiff worked as a hotel manager for the family business without pay for five years. (AR 36; see also AR 55-59, 62-63, 69-70.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff had severe impairments through the date last insured.[1] (Id.) After considering the entire record, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), [2] except that she could perform occasional postural activities, not walk on uneven terrain, not climb except occasionally to climb stairs, not work at heights, and not work around dangerous machinery. (AR 35-37.) Finally, the ALJ determined that based on the testimony of a vocational expert and considering Plaintiff's age, [3] education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed. (AR 37-38.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from January 1, 1996, the alleged onset date, through September 30, 2000, the date last insured." (Id.) In reaching his conclusions, the ALJ considered the entire record, including testimony from Plaintiff, her brother, her sister-in-law, and the vocational expert, and Plaintiff's medical records. (AR 35-38.)

On August 16, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the March 25, 2011 decision a final decision of the Commissioner and subject to judicial review. (AR 1-3.) See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. On appeal, Plaintiff introduced new medical evidence in the form of an MRI scan from 2003. (AR 215.) The Appeals Council considered the new medical information, but concluded that it did not affect the decision of whether Plaintiff was disabled at the time Plaintiff was last insured. (AR 2.)

On October 19, 2012, Plaintiff filed a complaint pursuant to section 405(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting judicial review of the March 25, 2011 decision. (Doc. No. 1.)


I. Legal Standards

A. Standards for Determining Disability

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, an applicant must show that: (1) he suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months; and (2) the impairment renders the applicant incapable of performing the work that he previously performed or any other substantially gainful employment that exists in the national economy. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); Tackett v. Apfell , 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). An applicant must meet both requirements to be "disabled." Id . The Social Security Regulations set forth a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. The Ninth Circuit summarized this process as follows:

The burden of proof is on the claimant as to steps one to four. As to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. If a claimant is found to be "disabled" or "not disabled" at any step in the sequence, there is no need to consider subsequent steps. The five steps are:
Step 1. Is the claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? If so, then the claimant is "not disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act and is not entitled to disability insurance benefits. If the claimant is not working in a substantially gainful activity, then the ...

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