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Watkins v. Astrue

March 16, 2009



This social security action was submitted to the court, without oral argument, for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.


On March 3, 2004, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act). (Transcript (Tr.) at 53-55, 669-72.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on June 8, 2004 and upon reconsideration on October 26, 2004. (Tr. at 34-35, 39-44, 673-79.) Pursuant to plaintiff's request for hearing dated December 10, 2004, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on November 3, 2005, at which time plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified. (Tr. at 52, 686-708.) In a decision issued on March 13, 2006, ALJ Antonio Acevedo-Torres determined that plaintiff was not disabled through that date. (Tr. at 14-28.) The ALJ entered the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the non-disability requirements for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits set forth in Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act and is insured for benefits through December 31, 2005.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability.

3. The claimant's obstructive sleep apnea status postoperative uvolopharyngopalatoplasty [sic*fn2], septoplasty and somnoplasty with subsequent maxillomandibular advancement surgery. He has also been assessed with residual lingual nerve dysesthesia and xerostomia, lumbosacral degenerative disc disease with chronic pain and asthma are considered "severe" based on the requirements in the Regulations 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c).

4. These medically determinable impairments do not meet or equal one of the listed impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation No. 4.

5. The undersigned finds the claimant's allegations regarding his limitations are not totally credible for the reasons set forth in the body of the decision.

6. The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of light work exertionally on a sustained basis with the additional limitations of no frequent bending, climbing, crouching, crawling or stooping. Light work includes the ability to stand, walk and sit for at least six hours in an eight-hour period with regular break opportunities and the ability to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently. The lifting requirements for the majority of light work can be accomplished with occasional, rather than frequent stooping and bending. (Social Security Ruling 83-10) The claimant should also avoid more than occasional speaking and he should avoid working around temperature extremes, dusts, humidity and fumes.

7. The claimant is unable to perform any of his past relevant work (20 CFR §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).

8. The claimant is a "younger individual between the ages of 45 and 49" (20 CFR §§ 404.1563 and 416.963).

9. The claimant has "more than a high school (or high school equivalent) education" (20 CFR §§ 404.1564 and 416.964).

10. The claimant has no transferable skills from semi-skilled work previously performed (20 CFR §§ 404.1568 and 416.968).

11. The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform substantially all of the full range of light work (20 CFR §§ 404.1567 and 416.967).

12. Based on an exertional capacity for light work, and the claimant's age, education, and work experience, Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 would direct a conclusion of "not disabled."

13. The claimant's capacity for light work is substantially intact and has not been compromised by any non-exertional limitations. Accordingly, using the above-cited rule(s) as a framework for decision-making, the claimant is not disabled.

14. The claimant was not under a "disability," as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time through the date of this decision (20 CFR §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(Tr. at 27-28.)

On May 10, 2006, plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 9.) The Appeals Council denied his request on June 23, 2006. (Tr. at 5-8.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on August 23, 2006.


The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. See Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599; Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. See Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, see 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, see Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under the Social Security regulations. Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 404.1520, sets forth the test used to assess disability. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process can be summarized as follows:

Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.

Step two: Does the claimant have a "severe" impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding ...

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