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Sisco v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

June 20, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


LUCY H. KOH, District Judge.

Plaintiff Susan Kay Sisco ("Sisco") appeals a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Sisco's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Sisco's motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, for remand, ("Pl. MSJ") ECF No. 10, and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, ("Def. MSJ") ECF No. 13. Both motions are fully briefed. See Pl. MSJ, Def. MSJ, ("Pl. Reply") ECF No. 14. Upon consideration of the briefing, the record in this case, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Sisco's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment.


A. Plaintiff's Age and Educational, Vocational, and Medical History

Sisco was born in 1952. Admin. R. ("AR") 94. Sisco completed a bachelor's degree in human development. AR 629. Sisco last worked on December 30, 2008 at which time she was a social service director at a senior housing facility. AR 193. Sisco had held the social service director job for approximately six years. Id. Sisco claims she was fired by her employer for repeated absences due to her medical conditions. AR 192. Prior to the social service director job, Sisco worked in a variety of functions, including as children's bookseller, government clerk, interpretative guide, job developer/counselor, medical social caseworker, tour guide, and travel consultant. AR 193.

Sisco was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2003. AR 24. The cancer was successfully treated with surgery and radiation, and there have been no signs of recurrence. Id. Sisco was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis ("MS") in 2003. AR 315. In addition, Sisco suffers from orthopedic problems in her neck, back, hips, and knees, depression, and anxiety. AR 22.

B. Procedural History

On July 22, 2009, Sisco applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging that she had become disabled on December 30, 2008, at the age of fifty-six. AR 22. Sisco alleged disability resulting from breast cancer; MS; orthopedic problems in her neck, back, hips, and knees; and depression and anxiety. Id. Sisco's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 96, 106. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conducted a hearing on March 29, 2011. AR 22, 51-93. On September 6, 2011, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Sisco was not disabled and therefore was not entitled to benefits. AR 22-44.

The ALJ first determined that Sisco had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2013. AR 22, 24. The ALJ then applied the five-step evaluation process for determining disability described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). AR 23. At step one, the ALJ found that Sisco had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 30, 2008, the alleged onset date. AR 24. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Sisco suffers from a severe combination of impairments consisting of MS, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, trochanteric bursitis of the right hip, and bilateral chrondromalacia of the patella. Id. The ALJ determined that Sisco's breast cancer was not a severe impairment as it had been successfully treated and showed no signs of recurring. Id. The ALJ also determined that Sisco's depression and anxiety were not a severe impairment. AR 25. At step three, the ALJ found that Sisco's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

At step four, the ALJ found that although Sisco was significantly restricted by MS, Sisco retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a narrowed range of sedentary work, including her previous jobs of social worker and travel consultant. AR 26, 37. The ALJ found that Sisco's mental condition was "generally mild in nature" and imposed "no significant functional restrictions." AR 41. At the hearing, the ALJ asked the vocational expert if a person with Sisco's physical limitations could perform her prior work. AR 87-90. The vocational expert testified that such a person would be able to work as a social worker or travel consultant. AR 89. As a result of the ALJ's RFC determination, the ALJ did not progress to step five. AR 44.

The Appeals Council denied Sisco's request for review on February 22, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 2-8. Sisco timely filed a complaint seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision in this Court on April 22, 2013. ECF 1.


A. Standard of Review

This Court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's 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. See Morgan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995). In this context, "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 v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992). 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 evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the Commissioner. Moncada, 60 F.3d at 523; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1258.

B. Standard for Determining Disability

The Social Security Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must also be so severe that a claimant is unable to do her previous work, and cannot "engage in any other kind of substantial ...

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