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Tsouvas v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 15, 2014

STEPHANIE ARLENE TSOUVAS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER

ALLISON CLAIRE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("the Act") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. The parties' cross motions for summary judgment are pending. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant in part plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and will deny defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on November 16, 2009, alleging disability beginning on March 13, 1990[1]. Administrative Record ("AR") 140-47, 148-54. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. AR 81-84, 90-94. On April 19, 2011, a hearing was held before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Christopher Trevor Skarda. AR 25-73. Plaintiff appeared with attorney representation at the hearing, at which she and a vocational expert testified. See id. In a decision dated May 27, 2011, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. AR 7-24. The ALJ made the following findings (citations to 20 C.F.R. omitted):

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 3, 2009, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant has the following severe impairment: Degenerative disc disease, obesity, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression.
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks; occasional push or pull with upper and lower extremities; occasional climbing, occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, and kneeling.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born on July 25, 1969 and was 39 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date.
8. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled, " whether or not the claimant has the transferable job skills.
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 3, 2009, through the date of this decision.

AR 10-19.

Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, but the Council denied review on November 23, 2012, leaving the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. AR 1-3.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Born on July 25, 1969, plaintiff was 39 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 41 years old at the time of the administrative hearing. Plaintiff held many previous positions, including working part-time as a front desk clerk and night audit clerk at a hotel. AR 34-35. She was fired from that position because she complained about her boss's behavior towards other employees; she was not fired because of her disability. AR 35, 37. In her most recent job, plaintiff worked as an admissions coordinator for a nursing home, but she was unable to maintain a full-time schedule "because it was very difficult to work." AR 37.

LEGAL STANDARDS

The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin. , 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin. , 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999); Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999).

The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. See Miller v. Heckler , 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Saelee v. Chater , 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). "It means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "While inferences from the record can constitute substantial evidence, only those reasonably drawn from the record' will suffice." Widmark v. Barnhart , 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).

Although this court cannot substitute its discretion for that of the Commissioner, the court nonetheless must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health and Hum. Servs. , 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988); see also Jones v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).

"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) (citations omitted). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). However, the court may review only the reasons stated by the ALJ in his decision "and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007); see also Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003).

The Court will not reverse the Commissioner's decision if it is based on harmless error, which exists only when it is "clear from the record that an ALJ's error was inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Stout v. Comm'r , 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on the grounds that (1) the ALJ erred by failing to provide any proper rationale for discounting her subjective complaints and credibility, (2) the ALJ erroneously discounted the assessments of all three treating doctors who offered opinions in this case; (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider the lay evidence of record; and (4) the ALJ erred by failing to rely upon the vocational expert testimony rendered in response to a complete hypothetical question. The Commissioner, in turn, argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free from legal error.

A. Plaintiff's Subjective Complaints and Testimony

1. Legal Standards

The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, "questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts" are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker , 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, "the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld." Morgan , 169 F.3d at 601. "The Commissioner's decision to deny benefits will be overturned only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.'" Id. at 599 (citing Magallanes v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir.1989) (quoting Green v. Heckler , 803 F.2d 528 (9th Cir.1986))).

To reject a claimant's subjective complaints, the ALJ must provide "specific, cogent reasons for the disbelief." Lester v. Chater , 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ "must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Id .; see also Dodrill v. Shalala , 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). Unless affirmative evidence shows the claimant is malingering, the ...


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