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Melissa Williams v. Michael J. Astrue

September 13, 2011

MELISSA WILLIAMS, PETITIONER,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER FOR THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Larry M. Boyle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

Currently pending before the Court is Melissa Williams's Petition for Review (Docket No. 1). Williams seeks review to set aside the final decision of Respondent denying her claims for Title II Social Security disability benefits. She brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). The parties consented to having the United States Magistrate Judge conduct all further proceedings in this case. (Docket No. 14). Having carefully reviewed and considered the pleadings, briefs and administrative record, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order.

ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Williams ("Petitioner" or "Claimant") filed for Social Security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act") on December 8, 2006. (AR 64). Petitioner alleges disability in the form of several impairments, or combination thereof, including depression, bipolar II, anxiety and diabetes. (AR 87). Petitioner also has mild asthma and is obese, which are taken into consideration when examining the combined effects of her claimed disabilities. In her petition she alleges an onset date of April 20, 2006. (AR 82).

The Commissioner denied Petitioner's application initially on June 29, 2007, (AR

13), and upon reconsideration on December 28, 2008. (Id.). Petitioner filed a timely request for a hearing which took place before Administrative Law Judge Lloyd Hartford on August 10, 2009. (AR 557). Petitioner is represented by attorney Jacob Bernhardt. (AR 550). Also present at the hearing were Medical Expert, Dr. James Bruce, and Vocational Expert Anne Aastum. (AR 557).

On December 9, 2009, the ALJ denied Petitioner's claim based on a finding that Petitioner "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from April 20, 2006, through the date of" the ALJ's decision. (AR 29).

Petitioner timely requested the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. Petitioner's appeal included letters from Petitioner and her attorney complaining of the way that ALJ Hartford spoke to Williams during the hearing. Petitioner went as far as to complain that the ALJ made her feel like she wasn't even human. Petitioner's attorney, Jacob Bernhardt, requested that the Appeals Council listen to the recording of the hearing, going as far as to state that "Judge Hartford's actions in this particular case defy explanation," and that he "seemed determined to deny the claim regardless of what was said by anyone involved, including the medical expert." (AR 550--56). The Appeals Council denied review on June 14, 2010, making the AJL's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. (AR 7).

Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Petitioner filed the instant action. Petition for Review (Docket No. 1). Petitioner requests that the ALJ's decision be reversed or, in the alternative, that this matter be remanded for an ALJ hearing de novo.

BACKGROUND

At the time of the hearing before the ALJ, Petitioner was thirty-seven years old. (AR 82). She completed high school, and attended two years of college. (AR 94). Further, Petitioner has worked as a cashier, housekeeper, babysitter and office worker. (AR 96). Petitioner has stated that due to her disability, she has been unable to perform any of these past jobs, or any other for that matter. (AR 64).

The ALJ determined that Petitioner has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. (AR 17 (citing 20 CFR 404.1520(c)). Notwithstanding, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner had not met her burden of proving that she has been under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act during the period under consideration and denied her application for benefits accordingly. (AR 17-19).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

It is undisputed that the burden of proof rests upon the Petitioner to establish entitlement to disability benefits. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). In evaluating the evidence at an administrative hearing, the ALJ must follow a five-part sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2005). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence and based upon proper legal standards, then it will be upheld. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2000); Matney ex rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 921 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992); Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990). Findings of fact by the ALJ are conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Vidal v. Harris, 637 F.2d 710, 712 (9th Cir. 1981). In other words, if there is substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual determinations, they must be upheld, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Hall v. Sec'y of Health, Educ. & Welfare, 602 F.2d 1372, 1374 (9th Cir. 1979).

Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that 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). This standard requires "more than a scintilla," but "less than a preponderance," Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183 (9th Cir. 1990), 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; Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019. The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, 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). When 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 only 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 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). Reviewing courts must bear in mind that the Social Security Act is remedial and should be construed liberally and "not so as to withhold benefits in marginal cases." Id. at 1095 (citations omitted).

There are two issues presented in the instant appeal. First is whether the ALJ's determination that Petitioner's testimony was not entirely credible is adequately supported in his findings of fact. Second is whether the AJL abused his discretion in not finding that Petitioner had not met the listing criteria for a chronic affective disorder. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 ยง 12.04C. The Court reviews the Commissioner's determination to ascertain if ...


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