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Reininger v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 9, 2013

Daena A. Reininger, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JAMES A. TEILBORG, Senior District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal from the Administrative Law Judge's denial of Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act.


On August 13, 2008, Plaintiff Daena April Reininger filed Title II and XVI applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income with the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the "Commissioner"), alleging that her disability began on January 1, 2002. (Record Transcript ("TR") 19). Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on September 4, 2009, and upon reconsideration it was denied again on March 12, 2010. ( Id. ).

Following the denials, on March 18, 2010, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. ). Plaintiff appeared and testified before the ALJ on January 25, 2011. ( Id. ). On March 25, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff suffered from severe fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, bipolar disorder, histrionic personality traits and opiate (methadone) dependence in a controlled setting and was unable to perform past relevant work. (TR 22; TR 31). However, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act because she retained the Residual Functional Capacity to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (TR 31-32).

Following the ALJ's denial of Plaintiff's claim, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision with the Appeals Council, Office of Hearings and Appeals, Social Security Administration. (TR 12). On May 8, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (TR 1). The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. ).

On June 19, 2012, Plaintiff filed her Complaint with this Court for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim, which is the subject of this appeal. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has filed an opening brief (the "Brief") seeking judicial review of the ALJ's denial of her claim. (Doc. 10). In the Brief, Plaintiff argues that the Court should set aside the ALJ's decision and award benefits because the ALJ's decision contains legal error as it lacks substantial justification to support the ALJ's conclusions. ( Id. at 27).


As an initial matter, in making her argument that the Court should set aside the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff conspicuously states that the standard of review is one where the ALJ's "[d]ecision is to be based on the record as a whole and the Social Security Act is to be broadly construed and liberally applied in favor of disability. " (Doc. 10 at 13) (emphasis added). Plaintiff directly cites " Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989)", for this bold proposition. ( Id. ). Plaintiff's proposition, however, is a complete misstatement of the law. Page 750 of Magallanes makes no reference or implication whatsoever about broadly construing or liberally applying the Social Security Act. In case the wrong pincite was used, the Court notes nothing in the opinion as a whole asserts this standard either. In case Plaintiff cited the wrong case, the Court notes that it has found no case in the Ninth Circuit asserting this proposition. The standard of review in the Ninth Circuit is in fact stated in Magallanes on page 750. However, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly explained, the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits will be overturned "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based on legal error." Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 750 (quoting Brawner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987), quoting in turn Green v. Heckler, 803 F.2d 528, 529 (9th Cir. 1986)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998).

"The inquiry here is whether the record, read as a whole, yields such evidence as would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions reached by the ALJ." Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted). In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support a decision, this Court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports the ALJ's conclusions and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. "Where evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ's conclusion which must be upheld; and in reaching his findings, the ALJ is entitled to draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence." Gallant, 753 F.2d at 1453 (citations omitted). If there is sufficient evidence to support the Commissioner's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9th Cir. 1990). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in medical testimony, determining credibility, and resolving ambiguities. See Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Thus, if on the whole record before this Court, substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, this Court must affirm it. See Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). "[T]he key question is not whether there is substantial evidence that could support a finding of disability, but whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's actual finding that claimant is not disabled." Jamerson v. Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1067 (9th Cir. 1997).

A. Definition of Disability

To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show among other things, that she is "under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(E). "The mere existence of an impairment is insufficient proof of a disability." Matthews v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 678, 680 (9th Cir. 1993) (citing Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642-43 (9th Cir. 1982)). Disability has "a severity and durational requirement for recognition under the [Social Security] Act that accords with the remedial purpose of the Act." Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Svcs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1459 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Social Security Act defines "disability" as the "inability 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A person is "under a disability only if h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. at § 423(d)(2)(A).

"A claimant bears the burden of proving that an impairment is disabling." Matthews, 10 F.3d at 680 (quoting Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 849 (9th Cir. 1985)). Thus, "[t]he applicant must show that [s]he is precluded from engaging in not only h[er] previous work, ' but also from performing any other kind of substantial gainful work' due to such impairment." Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

B. Five-Step Evaluation Process

The Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721 (describing the sequential process). A finding of "not disabled" at any step in the sequential process will end the ALJ's inquiry and the claim will be denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at the first four steps, but the burden shifts to the ALJ at the final step. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

The five steps are as follows:

First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

Second, if the claimant is not gainfully employed, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A severe impairment is one that "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. at § 404.1520(c). Basic work activities means the "abilities and aptitudes to do most jobs." Id. at § 404.1521(b). Further, the impairment must either be expected "to result in death" or "to last for a continuous period of twelve months." Id. at § 404.1509 (incorporated by reference in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). The "step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996).

Third, having found a severe impairment, the ALJ next determines whether the impairment "meets or medically equals the criteria of any of the listings in the Listing of Impairments in appendix 1, subpart P of 20 CFR part 404 (appendix 1)." SSR 12-2p, 2012 WL 3104869 at *6 (July 25, 2012). If so, the claimant is found disabled without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

Fibromyalgia ("FM"), however, cannot meet a listing in appendix 1 because FM is not a listed impairment. Therefore, at step 3 the ALJ determines whether FM medically equals a listing (for example, listing 14.09D in the listing for inflammatory arthritis), or whether it medically equals a listing in combination with at least one other medically determinable impairment. SSR 12-2p at *6.

When a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment under appendix 1, the ALJ will assess a claimant's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"). Id. The ALJ bases the RFC assessment on all relevant evidence in the case record. Id. The ALJ considers the effects of all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including impairments that are not severe. Id. For a person with FM, the ALJ will consider a longitudinal record ...

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