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Clark v. Colvin

United States District Court, C.D. California

February 9, 2015

CARROLL DIANNE CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JACQUELINE CHOOLJIAN, Magistrate Judge.

I. SUMMARY

On January 3, 2014, plaintiff Carroll Dianne Clark ("plaintiff"), who then had counsel but is currently proceeding pro se, filed a Complaint seeking review of the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of plaintiff's application for benefits. The parties have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, respectively ("Plaintiff's Motion")[1] and ("Defendant's Motion"). The Court has taken both motions under submission without oral argument. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 78; L.R. 7-15; January 7, 2014 Case Management Order ¶ 5.

Based on the record as a whole and the applicable law, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED. The findings of the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") are supported by substantial evidence and are free from material error.[2]

II. BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION

Based on plaintiff's applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") filed on November 24, 2004, plaintiff was found to be disabled beginning on May 1, 2004, due to Graves disease and asthma. (Administrative Record ("AR") 23, 25, 76, 145, 150, 308). The most recent favorable medical decision which found plaintiff to be disabled ( i.e., "comparison point decision" or "CPD") was dated June 13, 2005. (AR 23, 308). On April 7, 2011, it was determined that plaintiff was no longer disabled and that plaintiff's benefits would be terminated on June 1, 2011. (AR 23; see AR 70-71). On April 18, 2012, plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (AR 110).

On September 13, 2012, the ALJ examined the medical record and heard testimony from plaintiff (who was represented by counsel). (AR 48-67). On February 20, 2013, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's disability "ended on April 1, 2011" and plaintiff had not become disabled again through the date of the decision. (AR 23-32). Specifically, the ALJ found that beginning on April 7, 2011: (1) plaintiff suffered from the following severe combination of impairments: Graves disease, osteoarthritis of the left knee status post total knee replacement, and status post gastric bypass surgery (AR 25, 26); (2) plaintiff's impairments, considered singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment (AR 25-26); (3) the impairments present at the time of the CPD decreased in medical severity to the point where plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b)) and was limited to no more than occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and climbing of ladders, rope, scaffolding, ramps or stairs (AR 26); (4) plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work (AR 31); (5) there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform (AR 31-32); and (6) plaintiff's allegations regarding her limitations were partially not credible (AR 27).

The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's application for review. (AR 6).

III. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Sequential Evaluation Process

To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show that the claimant is unable "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." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Once a claimant is found disabled under the Social Security Act, a presumption of continuing disability arises. See Bellamy v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 755 F.2d 1380, 1381 (9th Cir. 1985) (citation omitted). The Secretary may not terminate benefits unless substantial evidence demonstrates sufficient medical improvement in a claimant's impairment that the claimant becomes able to engage in substantial gainful activity. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(4)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 423(f); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994; Murray v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 499, 500 (9th Cir. 1983).

In assessing whether a claimant continues to be disabled, an ALJ must follow an eight-step sequential evaluation process for DIB claims and a seven-step process for SSI claims:[3]

(1) (DIB cases only) Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, and any applicable trial work period has been completed, the claimant's disability ends. If not, proceed to step two.
(2) Does the claimant have an impairment, or combination of impairments, which meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant's disability continues. If not, proceed to step three.
(3) Has there been medical improvement as shown by a decrease in the medical severity of the impairment(s) present at the time of the CPD?[4] If so, proceed to step four. If not, proceed to step five.
(4) Was any medical improvement related to the ability to work ( i.e., has there been an increase in the claimant's residual functional capacity)? If so, proceed to step six. If not, proceed to step five.
(5) Is there an exception to medical improvement? If not, the claimant's disability continues. If an exception from the first group of exceptions to medical improvement applies ( i.e., substantial evidence shows that the claimant has benefitted from "advances in medical or vocational therapy or technology" or "undergone vocational therapy" if either is "related to [the] ability to work"), see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d) & 416.994(b)(3), proceed to step six. If an exception from the second group[5] applies ( i.e., disability determination was fraudulently obtained, claimant was uncooperative, unable to be found, or failed to follow prescribed treatment), see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(e) & 416.994(b)(4), the claimant's disability ends.
(6) Is the claimant's current combination of impairments severe? If so, proceed to step seven. If not, the claimant's disability ends.
(7) Does the claimant possess the residual functional capacity to perform claimant's past relevant work? If so, the claimant's disability ends. If not, proceed to step eight.
(8) Does the claimant's residual functional capacity, when considered with the claimant's age, education, and work experience, allow the claimant to do other work? If so, the claimant's disability ...

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