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Sondra Capobres v. Michael J. Astrue

March 25, 2011

SONDRA CAPOBRES, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, RESPONDENT.



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

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Now pending before the Court is Sondra Capobres' Petition for Review (Docket No. 2), seeking review of the Social Security Administration's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. 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 first applied for Social Security disability benefits on June 24, 2004, when she was 44 years old. AR 61. Petitioner's application for benefits is based on the following alleged impairments: Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome ("EDS"), scoliosis, arthritic headache, shoulders, multiple knee injuries, muscle spasms, and hip pain. AR 68.

Petitioner's disability benefits application was denied initially and, again, on reconsideration. AR 37, 38, 49, 56. Petitioner made a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 46. On January 25, 2007, ALJ Michael J. Kilroy held a telephonic hearing from Billings, Montana; Petitioner appeared with counsel and testified from Boise, Idaho. AR 379. Vocational expert, Delane H. Hall, also appeared and testified at the hearing. AR 16.

Originally, Petitioner alleged an onset date of February 1999 when she stopped working. AR 68. However, at the hearing, Petitioner amended her onset date to March 26, 2004. AR 16.*fn1 In addition, the ALJ determined that her last date insured was June 30, 2004. AR 18. Thus, to be eligible for disability benefits under Title II, Petitioner must prove that she was disabled sometime between March 26 and June 30, 2004.

On October 1, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying Petitioner's application. AR 13-26. The ALJ determined that Petitioner was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from March 26, 2004 to the date last insured. AR 16. The ALJ found that Petitioner's testimony regarding her symptoms during the relevant time period was not consistent with the information she was providing her doctors at that time. AR 21. The ALJ noted that Petitioner's pain complaints increased after June 30, 2004; however, Petitioner's last date insured was June 30, 2004, so the ALJ deemed this evidence not relevant to his decision. AR 24.

Petitioner timely requested review from the Appeals Council. AR 5. The Council denied Petitioner's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security.

Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner timely filed the instant action, arguing that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence and is in conflict with rules, regulations, and the law. Petitioner's Opening Brief, p. 2 (Docket No. 10). Specifically, Petitioner asserts that: (1) the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinions of Petitioner's treating physician, Barbara Quattrone; (2) the ALJ did not properly evaluate Petitioner's credibility regarding her pain and other symptoms; and (3) the ALJ did not include all of Petitioner's limitations in the residual functional capacity assessment. Id. Petitioner requests that the Court reverse the ALJ's decision and order the immediate payment of benefits or, alternatively, remand the case for proper consideration of the evidence.

As explained more fully below, the Court will deny the Petition. This is a difficult case given the nature of Petitioner's underlying condition, a chronic and inherited disease. Clearly, Petitioner has lived with EDS her entire life. However, her symptoms have changed over time as have the severity of her symptoms. The ALJ's decision focused upon the status of Petitioner's impairments during the relevant time period. In light of the evidence in the record as a whole and the time period relevant to the disability determination, the Court finds that the ALJ's decision denying benefits was free of legal error and based on substantial evidence in the record.

III. 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).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Sequential Processes

In evaluating the evidence presented at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a sequential process in 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 did not perform SGA after her alleged disability onset date. AR 18.

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 had a combination of impairments that, together, are ...


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