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Dorrell v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

September 30, 2014

LORNA R. DORRELL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CRAIG M. KELLISON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff, who is proceeding with retained counsel, brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Pursuant to the written consent of all parties, this case is before the undersigned as the presiding judge for all purposes, including entry of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Pending before the court are plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 18) and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment (Doc. 20).

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Mark C. Ramsey recited the following relevant procedural in his April 25, 2011, decision:

This case is before the undersigned Administrative Law Judge pursuant to a stipulation and proposed order of voluntary remand from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.[1] The claimant appeared and testified at a hearing held on March 14, 2011, in Redding, CA....
Pursuant to the District Court remand order, the Appeals Council has directed the undersigned to reconsider the medical opinions including those of reviewing and examining physicians Drs. Jordan, Lang, and Xeller. The ALJ must obtain vocational expert testimony.
The claimant is alleging disability since May 16, 2002.

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled through the date last insured based on the following relevant findings:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements on December 31, 2007;
2. Through the date last insured, the claimant has the following severe impairment(s): cervical degenerative disc disease, status post cervical fusion; mild right carpal/cubital tunnel syndrome; and chronic headaches;
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in the regulations;
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant has the following residual functional capacity: the claimant can perform light work; the claimant can occasionally lift/carry 20 pounds and frequently 10; she can stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday; she can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she cannot overhead reach or lift bilaterally; she has no restrictions on left hand, but can occasionally finger and keyboard with her right hand; she cannot look down or up with her neck flexed continuously;
5. Through the date last insured, the claimant was capable of performing past relevant work as a nurse supervisor (DOT: 075.167-010); and
6. Alternatively, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and vocational expert testimony, through the date last insured, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could perform.

After the Appeals Council declined review on April 17, 2013, this appeal followed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it is: (1) based on proper legal standards; and (2) supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). "Substantial evidence" is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. See Saelee v. Chater , 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996). It is "... such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 402 (1971). The record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, must be considered and weighed. See Howard v. Heckler , 782 F.2d 1484, 1487 (9th Cir. 1986); Jones v. Heckler , 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). The court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. See Hammock v. Bowen , 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a particular finding, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. See Sprague v. Bowen , 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987). Therefore, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the Commissioner's decision, the decision must be affirmed, see Thomas v. Barnhart , 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, see Burkhart v. Bowen , 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

III. DISCUSSION

In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ erred in concluding that plaintiff's depression is non-severe; (2) the ALJ failed to provide reasons for rejecting medical opinions relating to limitations caused by plaintiff's headaches; (3) the ALJ erred in finding plaintiff's testimony not credible; (4) the ALJ failed to properly consider lay witness evidence; and (5) the ALJ erred by relying on vocational expert testimony which did not fully describe plaintiff's limitations.

A. Severity Finding

In order to be entitled to benefits, the plaintiff must have an impairment severe enough to significantly limit the physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).[2] In determining whether a claimant's alleged impairment is sufficiently severe to limit the ability to work, the Commissioner must consider the combined effect of all impairments on the ability to function, without regard to whether each impairment alone would be sufficiently severe. See Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1289-90 (9th Cir. 1996); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523 and 416.923. An impairment, or combination of impairments, can only be found to be non-severe if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. See Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-28; see also Yuckert v. Bowen , 841 F.2d 303, 306 (9th Cir. 1988) (adopting SSR 85-28). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing the severity of the impairment by providing medical evidence consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 416.908. The plaintiff's own statement of symptoms alone is insufficient. See id. As to the severity of plaintiff's depression, the ALJ stated:

The claimant's medically determinable mental impairment of depression did not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and was therefore nonsevere.
In making this finding, the undersigned has considered the four broad functional areas set out in the disability regulations for evaluating mental disorders... These four broad ...

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