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Smith v. Astrue

February 20, 2009

WALTER MAE SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Patrick J. Walsh United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Walter Mae Smith brings this action seeking reversal of a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her application for supplemental security income. Alternatively, she asks the Court to remand the case to the Agency for further proceedings. After reviewing the record and for the reasons discussed below, the Agency's decision is REVERSED and the action is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

Plaintiff was born on August 11, 1958, and was 48-years-old at the time of the administrative hearing. (Administrative Record ("AR") 41, 165.) She has a ninth-grade education and no past relevant work experience. (AR 165, 170.)

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on September 16, 2005, alleging that she had been disabled since January 1, 2000, due to mental illness, asthma, pain (back, arm, and leg), and a uterine tumor. (AR 41, 43, 48, 164-65.) On October 19, 2005, just over a month after she filed her application, the Agency requested records from a county mental health facility where Plaintiff had been treated. (AR 161.) The facility did not produce the records. The Agency then requested the records, again. (AR 160.) On December 12, 2005, an Agency employee spoke with an employee at the county facility and was informed that Plaintiff's treating physician was no longer employed at the facility, but that a message would be sent to the records department to have Plaintiff's records forwarded to the Agency. (AR 159.) A call from the Agency to the records department that same day went unanswered. (AR 159.) The Agency provided Plaintiff with a mental health questionnaire to be filled out by her treating psychiatrist. (AR 159.) This form was never returned.

After her application was denied initially, Plaintiff requested and was granted an administrative hearing. (AR 19, 27, 33-36.) She appeared with counsel at the hearing on June 12, 2007, and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 162-75.) She told the ALJ that she did not drive and that her driver's license had expired. (AR 166.) She also told him that she was able to "do little stuff" around the house and could cook food in a microwave, but needed a friend's help to go grocery shopping. (AR 166-67.) Plaintiff explained that she suffered from leg pain for which doctors had prescribed Tylenol 500, but that she had not experienced relief with the medication. (AR 168.) She testified that she used a cane for balance due to her leg impairment and used an inhaler for breathing problems. (AR 167-68.)

A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. He opined that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's residual functional capacity could work. (AR 170-74.)

On June 18, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim under the Agency's five-step sequential evaluation process. (AR 6-17.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 9, 2007. (AR 3-5.) Plaintiff then commenced this action.

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred when he: 1) failed to adequately develop the record; 2) failed to properly consider the consultative examiner's findings; 3) found that Plaintiff was not credible; and 4) failed to pose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. For the following reasons, the Court finds that the ALJ erred and orders remand for further proceedings.

A. The ALJ's Failure to Develop the Record

In her first claim of error, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred when he failed to fully develop the record by obtaining the medical records from the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department facility where Plaintiff was treated for psychiatric complaints. Defendant claims that there was no error because the Agency did all it could to obtain the records, and, besides, it was Plaintiff's duty to obtain them in the first place. For the following reasons, the Court sides with Plaintiff and orders remand for further development of the record.

Both sides have provided the Court with relevant legal authority for the proposition that the other side was legally responsible for obtaining the records from the county mental health facility. Plaintiff's cite the Social Security Regulations and case law, which stand for the proposition that an ALJ has a duty to fully and fairly develop the record, particularly where, as here, the claimant may have a psychiatric disorder. Plaintiff notes that this duty exists even when the claimant is represented by counsel. Defendant cites equally compelling authority ...


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