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Alaali v. Astrue

September 30, 2010

NOURI ALAALI, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED STATES SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Ronald E. Bush U. S. Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Pending before the Court is Nouri Alaali's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claim for disability benefits. This action is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Having carefully reviewed the record and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

I. ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Petitioner Nouri Alaali ("Petitioner") was 46 years old at the alleged disability onset date. AR 30, 564. His home country is Iraq and he has been in the United States since his admission as a refugee in 2001. AR 357, 368. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States on April 30, 2007. AR 369.

On July 14, 2003, Petitioner applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning February 10, 2003. (AR 18, 87-91, 464). At issue here is Petitioner's claim that he is disabled from degenerative disc disease and post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). (AR 18, 22). Petitioner's claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and he filed a request for a hearing. (AR 330).

On February 7, 2006, a hearing was held on Petitioner's claims and Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Hayward Reed considered testimony from Petitioner (through an interpreter), Michael Dennis, M.D., a medical expert, and Polly Peterson, Ph.D., a vocational expert. (AR 330, 506, 508-09). Petitioner was represented in this first hearing by attorney Larry Weeks. (AR 506).

The ALJ issued a decision denying Petitioner's application on August 15, 2006. (AR 330-40). The Appeals Council granted Petitioner's request for review, vacated the hearing decision, and remanded the case back to an ALJ for another hearing to evaluate Petitioner's subjective complaints. (AR 18, 349-51).

On March 25, 2008, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Michael A. Kilroy presided over a second hearing (AR 18, 543-92) during which testimony was taken from Petitioner (again through an interpreter), Linda Lester, a licensed social worker, Michael Dennis, M.D., a medical expert, and James Grissom, Ph.D., a vocational expert. (AR 543, 545). Petitioner was represented by attorney Debra Young-Irish, the attorney representing Petitioner in the present case. (AR 543).

The ALJ issued a decision denying Petitioner's application on August 19, 2008. (AR 18-31). The Appeals Council denied Petitioner's request for review on March 20, 2009 (AR 6-8), making the ALJ's decision the final Agency decision. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481, 422.210. This appeal followed.

Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Petitioner argues on appeal that the ALJ:

(1) erred in failing to find that his back condition was severe; (2) failed to properly support his finding that Petitioner's allegations concerning his back pain and his mental impairments were not credible; (3) was biased and failed to give Petitioner a fair hearing; and (4) failed to properly support his rejection of the opinions of treating physicians and other medical providers. Pet.'s Br., p. 9 (Docket No. 14). Petitioner therefore requests that the ALJ's decision be reversed and/or remanded to a different ALJ.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

To be upheld, the Commissioner's decision must be supported by substantial evidence and based on proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Matney ex. rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990). Findings as to any question of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In other words, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual decisions, they must be upheld, even when there is conflicting evidence. Hall v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 602 F.2d 1372, 1374 (9th Cir. 1979).

"Substantial evidence" is defined as such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993); Flatten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995). The standard requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), and "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

With respect to questions of fact, the role of the Court is to review the record as a whole to determine whether it contains evidence that would allow a reasonable mind to accept the conclusions of the ALJ. See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; see also Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving conflicts in medical testimony, Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984), resolving ambiguities, see Vincent ex. rel. Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984), and drawing inferences logically flowing from the evidence, Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation in a disability proceeding, the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment or interpretation of the record for that of the ALJ. Flatten, 44 F.3d at 1457; Key v. Heckler, 754 F.2d 1545, 1549 (9th Cir. 1985).

With respect to questions of law, the ALJ's decision must be based on proper legal standards and will be reversed for legal error. Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. The ALJ's construction of the Social Security Act is entitled to deference if it has a reasonable basis in law. See id. However, reviewing federal courts "will not rubber-stamp an administrative decision that is inconsistent with the statutory mandate or that frustrates the congressional purpose underlying the statute." Smith v. Heckler, 820 F.2d 1093, 1094 (9th Cir. 1987).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Sequential Processes

In evaluating the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process when determining whether a person is disabled in general (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920) - or continues to be disabled (see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994) - within the meaning of the Social Security Act.

The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity ("SGA"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). SGA is defined as work activity that is both substantial and gainful. "Substantial work activity" is work activity that involves doing significant physical or mental activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(a), 416.972(a). "Gainful work activity" is work that is usually done for pay or profit, whether or not a profit is realized. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572(b), 416.972(b). If the claimant has engaged in SGA, disability benefits are denied, regardless of how severe his physical/mental impairments are and regardless of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not engaged in SGA, the analysis proceeds to the second step. Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date. AR 20.

The second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe and meets the duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" within the meaning of the Social Security Act if it significantly limits an individual's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). An impairment or combination of impairments is "not severe" when medical and other evidence establish only a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that would have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521, 416.921. If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). Here, the ALJ found that Petitioner's history of ...


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