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Baricevic v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

August 9, 2016

LISA BARICEVIC Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENDALL J. NEWMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff’s applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from December 15, 2000, through the date of the final administrative decision. (ECF No. 16.) The Commissioner filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff filed a reply. (ECF Nos. 21, 24.)

         For the reasons discussed below, the court DENIES plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment, and enters judgment for the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on May 25, 1968, completed some college, and is able to communicate in English. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 34, 54, 225.)[2] She has worked as a car salesperson and bus driver. (AT 34, 56, 84.) Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on May 12, 2012, alleging that her disability began on December 15, 2000. (AT 225-35.) Plaintiff alleged that she was disabled primarily due to shoulder, knee, neck, and back injuries, and diabetes. (AT 247.) After plaintiff’s applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which took place on July 24, 2013 and at which plaintiff, represented by an attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (AT 47-92.) The ALJ issued a decision dated December 2, 2013, determining that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, between December 15, 2000 and the date of that decision. (AT 21-35.) The ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review on May 19, 2015. (AT 1-6.) Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court on July 17, 2015, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. (ECF No. 1.)

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED

         On appeal, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) whether the ALJ erroneously discounted plaintiff’s own testimony regarding the extent of her symptoms and functional limitations; and (2) whether the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion of plaintiff’s treating physician Dr. Siy.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         The court reviews the Commissioner’s decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). “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) (citation omitted). “The court will uphold the ALJ’s conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Summary of the ALJ’s Findings

         The ALJ evaluated plaintiff’s entitlement to DIB and SSI pursuant to the Commissioner’s standard five-step analytical framework.[3] As an initial matter, the ALJ found that plaintiff remained insured for purposes of DIB through September 30, 2002. (AT 23.) At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 15, 2000, the alleged onset date. (Id.) At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “impingement syndrome of the left shoulder, calcium deposits in the left shoulder rotator cuff, history of left cubital tunnel syndrome, cervical disk bulge, fibromyalgia (or myofascial pain syndrome), diabetes mellitus, and obesity.” (AT 24.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AT 25.)

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as follows: “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a).” (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ found, based on the VE’s testimony, that plaintiff was not capable of performing any past relevant work. (AT 34.) At step five, the ALJ determined that, in light of plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. (AT 34-35.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from December 15, 2000, through the date of the ALJ’s decision. (AT 35.)

         B. Plaintiff’s Substantive Challenges to the Commissioner’s Determinations

         1. Whether the ALJ Erred in Finding Plaintiff’s Testimony Regarding the Extent of the Symptoms and Limiting Effects of Her Impairments Less than Fully Credible

         First, plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected plaintiff’s own testimony regarding the extent of the symptoms and limiting effects of her impairments.

         In Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028 (9th Cir. 2007), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals summarized the ALJ’s task with respect to assessing a claimant’s credibility:

To determine whether a claimant’s testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged. The claimant, however, need not show that her impairment could reasonably be expected to cause the severity of the symptom she has alleged; she need only show that it could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptom. Thus, the ALJ may not ...

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