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Childs v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. California

July 22, 2016

GEORGE P. CHILDS, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) determining that plaintiff did not continue to be disabled for purposes of receiving Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act (“Act”).[1] In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff’s disability ceased as of March 2012. (ECF No. 14.) The Commissioner opposed plaintiff’s motion and filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 15.) No optional reply brief was filed.

         For the reasons that follow, the court DENIES plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner’s cross-motion for summary judgment, and AFFIRMS the final decision of the Commissioner.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on November 20, 1965, has completed at least two years of college, can read and write in English, and previously worked as a customer service representative and a pressroom assistant. (Administrative Transcript (“AT”) 50-54, 101, 256, 262.)[2] In a previous decision dated March 22, 2007, plaintiff was found disabled as of February 1, 2007. (AT 25.) However, in the course of a subsequent continuing disability review, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was no longer disabled as of March 2012. (Id.) That determination was upheld upon reconsideration after a hearing before a disability hearing officer on November 5, 2012. (AT 120-49.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which took place on March 11, 2013, and at which plaintiff, represented by an attorney, testified. (AT 80-100.) A supplemental hearing was also held on July 2, 2013, at which plaintiff was again represented by counsel, and in the course of which the ALJ heard testimony from a medical expert, a mental health expert, and a vocational expert (“VE”). (AT 45-79.)

         In a decision dated August 12, 2013, the ALJ determined that plaintiff’s disability had ceased as of March 2012. (AT 25-41.) The ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review on January 12, 2015. (AT 1-6.) Plaintiff then filed this action in federal district court on March 12, 2015, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. (ECF No. 1.)


         On appeal, plaintiff raises the sole issue of whether the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiff’s own testimony concerning his symptoms and functional limitations attributable to his impairments.


         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).


         “A Social Security disability benefits claimant is no longer entitled to benefits when substantial evidence demonstrates (1) there has been any medical improvement in the claimant’s impairment and (2) the claimant is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity.” Attmore v. Colvin, 2016 WL 3563596, at *1 (9th Cir. Jun. 30, 2016) (citation and punctuation marks omitted). As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained:

Medical improvement is defined as any decrease in the medical severity of a recipient’s impairment, and requires a comparison of prior and current medical evidence which must show that there have been changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs or laboratory findings associated with that impairment(s). The Commissioner’s regulations prescribe a specific baseline for this comparison: an ALJ must compare the medical severity of the impairment(s) present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision-that is, when the claimant was last found disabled or continued to be disabled-to the medical severity of that impairment(s) at the time of the comparison.
Making this comparison is straightforward in ordinary termination cases where the ALJ finds a claimant is disabled (or continues to be disabled) in one decision and, in a later decision, finds the claimant has medically improved. In those cases, the most recent favorable medical decision is an earlier decision, and the severity of the claimant’s ...

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