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Moore v. Astrue

July 21, 2008

JOHN A. MOORE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Phyllis J. Hamilton United States District Judge

ORDER RE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Plaintiff John A. Moore ("Moore") seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("the Commissioner") decision denying his claim for disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This action is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Moore's alternative motion to remand. Having read the parties' papers and administrative record, and having carefully considered their arguments and relevant legal authority, the court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part both parties' motions, and REMANDS this case to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the court's order.

BACKGROUND

Moore filed an application for supplemental security income benefits on March 1, 2004, and an application for disability insurance benefits on March 29, 2004. A.T. 244, 508. He alleged disability beginning April 20, 2002. A.T. 244. The Commissioner denied those applications on July 8, 2004, and upon reconsideration on November 2, 2004. A.T. 206, 213. Moore filed a request for hearing on December 22, 2004. A.T. 219. A hearing was subsequently held before Administrative Law Judge Robert P. Wenten ("the ALJ") on February 16, 2006. A.T. 22. The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on July 13, 2006, finding Moore not "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.T. 26. Moore then requested review by the Appeals Council on August 31, 2006. A.T. 17. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on January 11, 2007. A.T. 9. On March 12, 2007, Moore brought this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). At the time of the ALJ's hearing, Moore was forty-eight years-old and had completed high school. A.T. 22, 144. He had previously worked as a grounds recycler, a janitor, a machinist, a hand packer, a machine maintainer, a fork lift operator and a shear operator. A.T. 22. Moore alleges both physical and mental impairments, but his position in this action is that the mental impairments alone render him disabled. He alleges that he suffers from a psychotic disorder triggered by his work injuries and unemployment. A.T. 330-35.

A. Onset Date

In Moore's 2004 application for Supplemental Security Income, he stated that the onset of his disability was May 28, 2002. A.T. 508. In his 2004 Disability Report Form and application for disability insurance benefits, he stated that the onset of disability was April 20, 2002. A.T. 265. Subsequently, in his Closing Statement to the ALJ, Moore sought to amend the onset date for the mental disability to June 26, 2004. A.T. 335. The ALJ did not formally rule on the proposed amendment. The ALJ's findings simply note that, in his application for disability insurance benefits, the alleged onset date was April 20, 2002. A.T. 26. The unresolved onset date does not affect the court's resolution of the issues raised by Moore.

STATUTORY AND REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

The Social Security Act ("the Act") provides for the payment of disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the Social Security system and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 423 (a)(1). To evaluate whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ is required to use a five-step analysis.

C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ may terminate the analysis at any stage where a decision can be made that the claimant is or is not disabled. See Pitzer v. Sullivan, 908 F.2d 502, 504 (9th Cir. 1990).

At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in any "substantial gainful activity," which would automatically preclude the claimant from receiving disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I). If not, at the second step, the ALJ must consider whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment which "significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). The third step requires the ALJ to compare the claimant's impairment to a listing of impairments in the regulations. If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the severity of any medical condition contained in the listing, the claimant is presumed disabled and is awarded benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's condition does not meet or equal a listing, the ALJ must proceed to the fourth step to consider whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") to perform his past work despite the limitations caused by the impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his past work, the Commissioner is required to show, at step five, that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's "residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience." See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Overall, in steps one through four, the claimant has the burden to demonstrate a severe impairment and an inability to engage in his previous occupation. Andrews v. Shahala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 1995). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant can perform other work. Id.

ALJ's FINDINGS

In this case, the ALJ determined that Moore was not disabled at step four of the disability evaluation. A.T. 26. The ALJ first concluded that Moore had not engaged in substantial gainful employment activity since the alleged onset of his disability. A.T. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Moore suffered from two severe and medically determinable impairments, including right shoulder impingement syndrome and an anxiety disorder. A.T. 22. He did not find that other impairments, which Moore alleged resulted from a car accident, were severe. A.T. 22. At step three, the ALJ found that Moore's physical impairment did not meet the requirements for Listing § 1.02, and that his mental impairment did not meet the requirements for Listing § 12.06. A.T. 23.

The ALJ further concluded that none of the medical findings in the record were equal in severity and duration to any of the Listed Impairments. A.T. 23. Having found that Moore did not suffer from a listed impairment, the ALJ turned to step four and assessed Moore's RFC. A.T. 23. The ALJ first assessed the conclusions of Dr. Miller, who had seen Moore twice after a work accident in which he reportedly bumped his head on the top of a van in which he was riding. A.T. 23. The ALJ noted that Dr. Miller questioned the seriousness of the injury, which Moore had reported to include neck, back and arm pain. A.T. 23. The ALJ next turned to the findings of Dr. Fox, who began seeing Moore in July 2002. Dr. Fox initially noted that Moore's condition significantly limited his freedom of movement. But the ALJ concluded that these limitations were merely a recitation of Moore's complaints rather than medical conclusions. A.T. 23. The ALJ based this finding on Dr. Fox's later conclusions that Moore actually had much greater freedom of movement. A.T. 23. Dr. Fox also found that Moore's subjective complaints were out of proportion to the objective physical findings. A.T. 23. The ALJ then assessed the findings of Dr. Kaji, who saw Moore in May 2004 and May 2005. A.T. 24. In May 2004, Dr. Kaji concluded that Moore's freedom of movement and ability to lift and carry were not significantly limited. A.T. 24. But in May 2005, Dr. Kaji concluded that Moore could sit or stand for no more than two hours and could do only occasional reaching at less than shoulder level with the right arm. A.T. 24. The ALJ concluded that Dr. Kaji's 2005 findings should not be given deference because they were inconsistent with other objective evidence, including a negative x-ray of Moore's shoulders from October 2005. A.T. 25. Instead, the ALJ gave more deference to Dr. Kaji's 2004 assessment, which was consistent with other evidence in the record. A.T. 25. Having surveyed the physical impairment findings, the ALJ turned to the conclusions of Dr. Eberhardt, a psychiatrist who began seeing Moore in May 2005. A.T. 24.

Dr. Eberhardt diagnosed Moore with a likely psychotic disorder, and later concluded that he would have marked difficulty in accomplishing several basic work functions. A.T. 24. The ALJ gave no deference to Dr. Eberhardt's opinions because they were not the conclusions of a treating physician. A.T. 25. He found that Dr. Eberhardt had not seen Moore a sufficient number of times to establish a longitudinal treatment history, nor had she provided him any treatment. A.T. 25. The ALJ then assessed Moore's own statements regarding his symptoms. A.T. 25. In light of the objective medical findings and Moore's past behavior, the ALJ found Moore's statements to be not credible. A.T. 25. The ALJ cited the findings of Drs. Fox and Miller, as well as the fact that Moore had missed several treatment appointments. A.T. 25. He concluded that Moore's statements at the hearing were merely for the purpose of establishing disability. A.T. 25. In considering Moore's statements along with all other evidence in the record, the ALJ concluded that Moore's RFC was medium work with very limited interaction with co-workers and the public. A.T. 25. This conclusion, coupled with the testimony of the vocational expert, convinced the ALJ that Moore was able to perform ...


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