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Howell v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

September 23, 2013

Sonja Marie Howell, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


LAWRENCE O. ANDERSON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The parties, who have expressly consented in writing to proceed before the undersigned Magistrate Judge per 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), have filed briefs in accordance with the Rules of Practice ("Local Rules" or "LRCiv") 16.1. (Docs. 10, 14) After review of the record, briefing and applicable law, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

I. Procedural Background

In April 2008, Plaintiff filed applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 and §§ 1381-1383c. (AR[1] 138-152) Plaintiff was 39 years old when she filed the applications and she has an eleventh grade education. (AR 139, 176) Plaintiff also claims to have completed two semesters of community college despite not graduating from high school. (AR 41) Plaintiff reported in the applications she was rendered unable to work due to a disabling condition beginning on March 20, 2007, and that she remains disabled. (AR 139, 146) Plaintiff has identified fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, depression, asthma and migraines as the conditions that limit her ability to work. (AR 51-53, 164)

Plaintiff's applications were denied by the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on August 18, 2008. (AR 74-77) Her request for reconsideration was denied on February 13, 2009. (AR 85-92) At Plaintiff's request, AR 94, a hearing was held on July 16, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Earl C. Cates, Jr. (AR 31-69) In a decision dated August 16, 2010, the ALJ ruled Plaintiff is not entitled to disability benefits because she "has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from March 20, 2007, through the date of this decision." (AR 15, 15-24)

Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision/Order on October 7, 2010. (AR 10) On March 22, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 1-3) As a result of the denial, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the SSA. (AR 1)

On May 16, 2012, having exhausted the administrative review process, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision by filing a Complaint in this District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1) On October 1, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief pursuant to LRCiv 16.1, in which she seeks a remand for an award of disability benefits or, alternatively, a remand for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. 23) On October 31, 2012, Defendant filed an Opposition to Plaintiff's Opening Brief. (Doc. 24) Plaintiff filed a Reply Brief on November 16, 2012. (Doc. 25)

II. Applicable Legal Standards

A. Standard of Review

A district court must affirm the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible error. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, a district court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Secretary's conclusion, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21.

B. Sequential Evaluation Process

To be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, a claimant must show an "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); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). The claimant bears the initial burden of proving disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). A five step procedure is used to evaluate a disability claim:

In step one, the Secretary determines whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). In step two, the Secretary determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the answer is no, the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is yes, the Secretary proceeds to step three and determines whether the impairment meets or equals a "listed" impairment that the Secretary has acknowledged to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If this requirement is met, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Secretary proceeds to step four. At step four, the Secretary determines whether the claimant can perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant can perform such work, she is not disabled. If the claimant meets the burden of establishing an inability to perform prior work, the Secretary must show, at step five, that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

III. ALJ Decision

Applying the five-step procedure in this case, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 20, 2007, the alleged onset date of her disabling condition. (AR 17) The ALJ found Plaintiff has the following "severe" impairments within the meaning of the regulations: fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease of L4-L5, asthma, and depression. ( Id. ) The ALJ determined, however, that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a "listed" impairment.[2] ( Id. ) As a result, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity[3] ("RFC"). (AR 19-22) The ALJ determined Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of sedentary to light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), (b) and § 416.967(a), (b). (AR 19) He found Plaintiff is able to frequently lift eight to ten pounds and occasionally lift fifteen to twenty pounds; sit at least thirty minutes at a time; stand at least ten to fifteen minutes at a time; and walk for one block at a time. ( Id. ) The ALJ further found Plaintiff requires a job that permits "the sit/stand option throughout an 8-hour workday with customary breaks, " and does not require bending, twisting and stooping, among other limitations. ( Id. )

In addition, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work in telephone sales, a job that utilizes the sit/stand option. (AR 22) He further found there are other jobs existing in the national economy Plaintiff can perform, including parking lot cashier and paramutual ticket seller. (AR 22-23) Based on these findings, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not been under a "disability, " as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged date of onset through the date of the ALJ's decision. ...

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