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Villalobos v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

December 11, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


PATRICIA SULLIVAN, Magistrate Judge.

Juan Villalobos ("plaintiff") brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed.


Plaintiff protectively filed applications for SSI and DIB in October 2008. Tr. 11, 128-142. After the applications were denied initially and upon consideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 11, 64-84. On March 29, 2011, the ALJ held a hearing, [1] at which plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified with the assistance of a Spanish interpreter. Tr. 11, 28-55. Vocational Expert ("VE") Kay Wise and plaintiff's wife, Priscilla Villalobos, were also present and testified at the hearing. Id. On April 18, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 8-18. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3. Thereafter, plaintiff filed an appeal in this court.


Born on March 12, 1970, plaintiff was 36 years old on the alleged onset date of disability, and 41 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 32, 153. Plaintiff was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and has a second grade education. Tr. 32. He has past relevant work experience as a spot welder, assembler, cleaner, and auto body helper. Tr. 52, 153-154, 177. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning on January 28, 2007, due to bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD", borderline intellectual functioning ("BIF"), and alcohol dependence. Tr. 13.


The court's review is limited to whether the Commissioner's decision was based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Copeland v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 536, 538 (9th Cir. 1988) (citing Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 575-76 (9th Cir. 1988)). Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975)). "It means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. of N.Y. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court must consider both evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision, but the decision shall not be overturned even if there is enough evidence in the record to support a contrary decision. Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or nondisability, the ALJ's decision is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence. Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

The Commissioner engages in a sequential process ranging between one and five steps to determine whether an individual is disabled under the Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (describing the five step sequence).

Step-one requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I). If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

At step-two, the ALJ must determine if the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical and mental impairment" that meets the twelve month duration requirement. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have such an impairment, he is not disabled. Id.

At step-three, the ALJ must determine whether the severe impairment, or combination of impairments, meets or equals a "listed" impairment in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the ALJ determines the impairment, or combination of impairments, equals a listed impairment, then the claimant is presumed disabled. Id.

If the adjudication proceeds beyond step-three, the ALJ must first evaluate the medical and other relevant evidence and determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The RFC is an assessment of work-related activities the claimant may still perform on a regular basis, despite the limitations imposed by his impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The ALJ uses this information to determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work at step-four. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the ALJ must determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy at step-five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. See Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, plaintiff must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected... to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). If the analysis reaches the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs within the claimant's RFC exist in the national economy. ...

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