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Rodriguez v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

August 13, 2014

CONNIE GAIL RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, 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 application for Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation, filed April 7, 2014, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and judgment is entered in her favor.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on August 26, 1957. (AR 28, 121.) She worked for many years as a truck driver and manager of fast-food restaurants. (AR 29-30, 192.)

On March 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB. (AR 42, 121-22.) She alleged that she had been unable to work since May 31, 2009, because of back pain, low platelets, lumbar pain, degenerative disc disease, facet arthropathy, [1] and bilateral lower extremity radiculopathy.[2] (AR 121, 171.) After Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 47-59.)

A hearing was held on February 15, 2012, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). (AR 24-41.) In a written decision issued May 25, 2012, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 11-19.) On June 27, 2012, Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (AR 6.) On June 6, 2013, the council denied the request. (AR 1-3.) This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 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. Id .; Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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); 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). 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). 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). 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")[3] to perform her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving 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). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 404.1520; 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 May 31, 2009, her alleged onset date. (AR 13.) At step two, she concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; essential thrombocytopenia;[4] hypertension and dyspnea." (Id.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's depression and anxiety were not severe, findings Plaintiff does not challenge. (AR 14-15.) At step three, she determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 15.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work,

which permits lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sitting for 6 hours in an 8 hour day; and standing/walking 6 hours in an 8 hour day except she needs to alternate positions at one hour intervals for one to five minutes at the work station. She can occasionally kneel, stoop, crawl and crouch and occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She has no restriction on the use of her hands. The claimant would need to use a single point cane for prolonged walking or walking on uneven or moving surfaces. She would be able to sustain concentration, attention, persistence and pace in at least 2 hour blocks of time to complete a normal workday and would be able to interact appropriately with coworkers, supervisors and the general public.

(Id.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a fast-food manager. (AR 19.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in assessing (1) the opinion of her treating physician and (2) her credibility. (J. Stip. at 3-4.)

A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating Plaintiff's Treating Physician's Opinion

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in according reduced weight to the assessment of her treating physician, ...


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