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Corso v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

February 10, 2014

JAMES M. CORSO, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

JOHN V. ACOSTA, Magistrate Judge.

James Corso ("plaintiff") seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403. This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on a careful review of the record, the Commissioner's decision should be affirmed and this case dismissed.

Procedural Background

Plaintiff applied for DIB on August 27, 2009, alleging disability as of January 17, 2005. (Tr. 21, 148.) His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 87-94, 98-100.) A hearing was held on July 7, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Catherine Lazuran; plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a medical[1] and vocational expert ("VE"). (Tr. 42-86.) On September 23, 2011, ALJ Lazuran issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 21-35.) After the Appeals Council denied his request to review ALJ Lazuran's decision, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. (Tr. 1-5.)

Factual Background

Born on June 7, 1965, plaintiff was 39 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 46 years old on the date of the ALJ hearing. (Tr. 46, 148.) Plaintiff dropped out of high school during the ninth grade but later studied computer science for two semesters at Lane Community College; he has not obtained a GED. (Tr. 47-48, 170.) He previously worked as an electronics technician, firefighter, and forklift operator. (Tr. 77-79, 172-83.)

Standard of Review

The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant 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. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [a court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment meets or equals "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national and local economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566.

The ALJ's Findings

At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through December 31, 2009, the date last insured. (Tr. 23.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "a history of left wrist injury and sprain and carpal tunnel syndrome with release." ( Id. ) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. (Tr. 25.)

Because he did not establish disability at step three, the ALJ continued to analyze how plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light exertion work:

He could lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 frequently with the right dominant upper extremity, but not with the left upper extremity. He could stand and walk at least six of eight hours and sit at least six of eight hours. He could seldom kneel or crawl and occasionally squat. He could seldom reach above shoulder level with the left nondominant arm. He could occasionally push and pull with the left arm. He could not climb a ladder, rope, or scaffold. He could occasionally do other crawling. He could not use the left upper extremity for fingering, grasping, or feeling. He could rarely reach with the left arm. He had no such limits regarding the right upper extremity. He needed to avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, vibration, and dust, fumes, gas, and poor ventilation. He needed to avoid exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights, humidity changes, and operating motor equipment.

( Id. ) At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 34.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that there are a significant number of jobs in the national and local economy plaintiff could perform despite his impairments, such as telephone answering service operator and telephone solicitor. (Tr. 35.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. ( Id. )

Discussion

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting his subjective symptom testimony; (2) finding that Complex Regional Pain Syndrome ("CRPS"), formerly known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy ("RSD"), was not a severe impairment at step two; (3) improperly assessing the medical reports of John Ellison, M.D., John Najera, M.D., James Bell, M.D., Kirk Wong, M.D., John Luckwitz, M.D., and nurse practitioners Penny Steers and Kelly Bell; and (4) failing ...


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