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Flores v. Astrue

September 11, 2008

CHRISTINE FLORES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



ORDER

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). For the reasons that follow, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted, and the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment is denied. This case is remanded for immediate payment of benefits, and the Clerk is directed to enter judgment for plaintiff.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, born June 25, 1950, applied for disability on July 27, 2000, alleging disability since March 13, 2000, due to heart attack, and three open heart surgeries. Administrative Record ("AR") 91-93, 122. Plaintiff worked for twenty-three years as a medical equipment sterilizer, and was unable to return to the job following a heart attack on March 13, 2000. AR 122-23, 536.

Plaintiff's application for benefits was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 71-81.

A hearing was held before administrative law judge ("ALJ") Daniel G. Heely, and on February 22, 2002, he found plaintiff not disabled.*fn1 AR 306-14. On January 14, 2003, the Appeals Council remanded the case, directing the ALJ to reconsider the medical opinions in the record and plaintiff's maximum residual functional capacity during the entire period at issue, to obtain evidence from a medical expert to clarify the nature and severity of her cardiac impairments, and to obtain vocational evidence. AR 324-28.

In a new decision, dated January 21, 2004, the ALJ found that plaintiff was entitled to a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as of April 1, 2002. AR 53-59. Prior to that date, he found that although plaintiff was "unable to perform the full range of sedentary work, she was capable of making an adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." AR 59. Using the Medical Vocational Guidelines ("grids") as framework, particularly Rules 201.28 and 201.29, he determined that a finding of "not disabled" was directed. AR 58-59; 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 2.

Following this decision, plaintiff's counsel advised the ALJ that the cited grid rules apply to "younger individuals" aged 18-44, and that his decision incorrectly cited plaintiff's age. In light of plaintiff's alleged date of onset of disability and her birth date, she was at the relevant time, in fact, between the ages of 50-54, which the regulations define as an "individual closely approaching advanced age." AR 31-32; see 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Rule 201.00(g).

On February 19, 2004, the ALJ issued an amended decision, in which he corrected plaintiff's age, but then altered the functional capacity finding so as to fall under the "light" table of the grids rather than the "sedentary" table. He then found that although plaintiff "was unable to perform the full range of light work, she was capable of making an adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy." AR 47 (emphasis added). Citing the vocational expert's testimony and Rule 202.14 of the grids as a framework, he again found that plaintiff not disabled prior to April 1, 2002.*fn2 Id. His specific findings were as follows:

1. The claimant met the disability insured status requirements of the Act on May 15, 2000, the date the claimant stated she became unable to work. She has acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through at least December 31, 2004.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date.

3. The medical evidence establishes that the claimant is status post a triple vessel coronary artery bypass graft and has angina, hyperlipidemia and mild congestive heart failure that are severe. None of her impairments met or equaled the criteria of any of the impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 before April 1, 2002.

4. The claimant's statements concerning her impairments and their impact on her ability to work before April 1, 2002 are not entirely credible in light of discrepancies between the claimant's assertions and information contained in the documentary reports.

5. Before April 1, 2002, the claimant retained the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally. She could sit, stand or walk for six hours each in an eight-hour workday. She required a sit/stand option, but could sit for up to one hour at a time. She could stand and/or walk for six hours, but her walking would be limited to two blocks at a time. The claimant experienced depression that caused no restrictions of her activities of daily living and no difficulties maintaining social functioning. She had mild deficiencies of concentration, persistence or pace, and there is no indication that she had an episode of decompensation. The claimant retained the understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, social interaction and adaptation skills necessary to engage in substantial gainful activity.

6. The claimant cannot return to her past work as a medical equipment sterilizer.

7. The claimant is 53 years old, a [sic] individual who is "closely approaching advanced age" with a high school education and a semi-skilled work experience.

8. Based on an exertional capacity for light work, and the claimant's age, educational background, and work experience, Section 416.969 and rule 202.14, Table 2, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations ...


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