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Morris v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 22, 2014

LISE MORRIS, Plaintiff,


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

Lise Morris ("Plaintiff") asserts she is entitled benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the decision denying her applications for benefits, asserting the administrative law judge erred in evaluating the medical evidence and in finding that she was able to return to past relevant work. For the reasons set forth below, the administrative decision is AFFIRMED.


Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on April 6, 2010, alleging disability beginning March 1, 2010. (Doc. 11-6 at 4, 13.) Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Doc. 11-3 at 11.) After requesting a hearing, Plaintiff testified before the administrative law judge ("ALJ") on July 19, 2011. ( Id. at 30.) The ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act, and issued an order denying benefits on September 2, 2011. ( Id. at 11-23.) Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council of Social Security, which denied Plaintiff's request on December 15, 2012. ( Id. at 2-4.) Therefore, the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").


District courts have a limited scope of judicial review for disability claims after a decision by the Commissioner to deny benefits under the Social Security Act. When reviewing findings of fact, such as whether a claimant was disabled, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The ALJ's determination that the claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the proper legal standards were applied and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Sanchez v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 812 F.2d 509, 510 (9th Cir. 1987).

Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant 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. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197 (1938)). The record as a whole must be considered, because "[t]he court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985).


To qualify for benefits under the Social Security Act, Plaintiff must establish she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual shall be considered to have a disability only if:

physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The burden of proof is on a claimant to establish his disability. Terry v. Sullivan, 903 F.2d 1273, 1275 (9th Cir. 1990). Once a claimant establishes a prima facie case of disability, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful employment. Maounis v. Heckler, 738 F.2d 1032, 1034 (9th Cir. 1984).


To achieve uniform decisions, the Commissioner established a sequential five-step process for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)-(f); 416.920 (a)-(f). The process requires the ALJ to determine whether Plaintiff (1) engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period of alleged disability, (2) had medically determinable severe impairments (3) that met or equaled one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; and whether Plaintiff (4) had the residual functional capacity to perform to past relevant work or (5) the ability to perform other work existing in significant numbers at the state and national level. Id. The ALJ must consider objective medical evidence and opinion hearing testimony. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927.

A. Medical Opinions[1]

On November 15, 2007, Dr. Jonathan Cheang performed a consultative psychiatric evaluation upon the request of Plaintiff's primary care physician. (Doc. 11-8 at 2.) Plaintiff reported she "ha[d] been dealing with depression for the past 20 years and never felt better." ( Id. ) She told Dr. Cheang that she "self-medicated with methamphetamine and alcohol, " and "abused methamphetamine for about 15 years, " until quitting approximately 4 ½ years prior to the examination. In addition, Plaintiff said she could not tolerate crowds, and going to grocery stores caused her to "start shaking and feeling on edge." ( Id. ) Dr. Cheang observed that Plaintiff appeared "a little bit tense" and her thought process was "generally goal-directed." ( Id. at 4.) Dr. Cheang diagnosed Plaintiff with major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate, without psychotic features; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; and polysubstance dependence, in full and sustained remission. He gave Plaintiff a GAF score of 60.[2] ( Id. )

Dr. Geradine Gauch completed a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation on August 28, 2010. (Doc. 11-8 at 35.) Plaintiff reported that she was "mentally unstable with depression, dissociative identity disorder, migraines, fibromyalgia, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, hypothyroidism and diabetes." (Doc. 11-8 at 35.) Dr. Gauch noted:

The claimant reported having been depressed for the past 20 years. She was diagnosed in 1991. She was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder six years ago by a counselor at her church, after having several episodes of blacking out; things happened that she was unaware of until the next morning, when she would see the damage to herself and her house.... These episodes began in 1993, and occurred most recently about 2-1/2 months ago. She broke possessions that were significant to her during these episodes. She has ripped pictures off the wall, fractured her hand punching the wall, tearing at her hair and scratching at herself. These occur when she is under significant stress, two to three times a year for the past seven years in which she has been free of drug abuse.

( Id. at 36.) Plaintiff told Dr. Gauch that she had attempted suicide twice in her past, and had a history of alcohol and drugs, including marijuana, mushrooms, ...

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