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Wong v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

March 17, 2015

ERIKA WONG, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Re: Docket Nos. 13, 14)

PAUL S. GREWAL, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Erika Wong suffers from multiple mental impairments, namely bipolar disorder and clinical depression.[1] Based on a variety of physicians' opinions, a vocational expert's observations and Wong's testimony as to her daily activities, the Commissioner of Social Security held that Wong's "medically severe combination of impairments"[2] were not disabling for the purposes of employment as housekeeper or inspector hand packager.[3] Because substantial evidence supports this decision, the court DENIES Wong's motion for summary judgment and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment.

I.

Through its administrative law judges, the Commissioner of Social Security evaluates claims using a sequential five-step evaluation process. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity, and if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied.[4] If the claimant currently is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments lasting more than 12 months; if not, the ALJ finds the claimant "not disabled" and the claim is denied.[5] If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments that meets the duration requirement, the third step requires the ALJ to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or is equal in severity to a listed impairment in Appendix 1 of Subpart P of 20 CFR § 404.[6] If the claimant's impairment equals or is comparable to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded.[7]

If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments is severe but does not meet or equal in severity a listed impairment, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity"[8] to perform his or her past work[9]; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the ALJ denies the claim.[10] It is the claimant's burden to prove that he or she is unable to perform past relevant work.[11] If the claimant meets this burden, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant can perform other work, [12] comprising the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. In determining whether claimant can adjust to other work, the ALJ considers claimant's RFC, age, education and work experience.[13] If the Commissioner provides evidence that the claimant can perform other work and that such work exists in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled and the ALJ must deny the claim.[14]

In determining whether the claimant is disabled, the ALJ considers medical opinions in the record that reflect on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment or impairments.[15] Generally, a non-examining source receives less weight that an examining physician's medical opinion, [16] and the opinion of a source that has treated the claimant and established a longitudinal picture of the claimant's impairment receives most weight.[17] Ultimately, the degree of weight given to medical opinions depends on the physician's presentation of relevant evidence and supporting explanations.[18] Weight given to a treating physician's opinion depends on how well the opinion is supported by "medically acceptable" techniques and consistency with substantial evidence in the record.[19] If contradicted by another doctor, the opinion of a treating or examining doctor can only be rejected for "specific and legitimate" reasons supported by "substantial evidence in the record."[20] The Commissioner will give weight to the opinions of non-examining sources to the extent they are "consistent with independent clinical findings or other evidence in the record."[21]

Nearly four years ago, Wong filed a Title II application for disability and disability insurance benefits as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income.[22] Wong alleged disability beginning December 8, 2010.[23] The claims were denied initially, upon reconsideration and following a hearing and supplemental hearing before the ALJ.[24] The appeals council denied further review, making the ALJ's decision the final agency decision.[25]

Wong now requests that this court remand with instructions to award and pay all disability benefits due or alternatively to remand for further proceedings.[26] The Commissioner requests that the court affirm the Commissioner's final decision.[27]

II.

The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties further consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a).[28] The court finds this motion suitable for disposition on the papers in light of this court's local rules and procedural order.[29]

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying Wong her benefits. The Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards.[30] In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance"-it is "such relevant evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion."[31] Where evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the ALJ.[32]

The decision of whether to remand for further proceedings turns on the likelihood that such proceedings could "remedy defects in the original administrative proceedings."[33] Where the Commissioner has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, such evidence must be credited[34]; further, an immediate award of benefits must be directed if there are no outstanding issues to resolve and the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled, were such evidence credited.[35]

III.

Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a), the ALJ conducted the sequential five-step evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. At the first step, the ALJ found Wong had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 8, 2010 and met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2012.[36] At step two, the ALJ found Wong had "the following medically severe ...


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