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Smith v. Astrue

April 3, 2009

BRADLEY D. SMITH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



ORDER

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 is granted, defendant's cross-motion is denied, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and this matter is remanded with the direction to grant benefits.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Bradley D. Smith initially applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act) on January 31, 2002. A closed period of disability from December 15, 1999 to August 31, 2002, was granted. Plaintiff requested a hearing on the partially favorable decision, and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) determined that plaintiff was disabled from December 15, 1999 through August 31, 2002, but could perform a range of light work on and after September 1, 2002. The Appeals Council denied review. The undersigned affirmed the Commissioner's decision in case No. CIV S-05-1226 DAD on March 9, 2007. (Transcript (Tr.) at 32; Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. at 3.)

On July 2, 2003, plaintiff filed a new application for benefits under Title II of the Act. (Tr. at 85-87.) The new application was based on a different time period and alleged new injuries. (Pl.'s Mem. at 4.) The application was denied initially on August 29, 2003 and upon reconsideration on February 18, 2004. (Tr. at 43-53.) Pursuant to plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an ALJ on January 5, 2006. (Tr. at 58-65, 282-333.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 289-322.) A vocational expert also testified. (Tr. at 322-332.) On February 9, 2006, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 12-20.) The ALJ entered the following findings:

1. Claimant filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on July 2, 2003, alleging disability from November 1, 2002. In a brief dated December 19, 2005, claimant, through his attorney, amended his alleged disability onset date to June 1, 2003.

2. Claimant met the disability insured status requirements of the Act on June 1, 2003, his amended alleged onset date, and continues to meet those requirements through December 31, 2007.

3. Claimant has not performed SGA [substantial gainful activity] since June 1, 2003.

4. The medical evidence establishes that claimant has the severe impairments of multilevel degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion surgery at L4-5 and L5-S1, and bilateral osteoarthritis of the hips, worse on the right than the left, status post right total hip replacement.

5. Claimant's severe impairments do not meet or equal any listed impairment of Appendix 1, Subpart P of Social Security Administration Regulation No. 4.

6. Claimant has an RFC [residual functional capacity] for a range of work at the sedentary exertional level with a sit- stand option every 30 to 45 minutes. Non-exertionally, claimant is limited to tasks not requiring a constant high level of concentration.

7. Claimant's subjective complaints are not fully credible.

8. Claimant is presently a 49-year-old individual with three years of college education and vocationally relevant past work experience as a branch bank manager, bank customer service representative, bank supervisor and bank teller during the past 15 relevant years.

9. Considering the above RFC, claimant cannot perform any of his past relevant work.

10. Considering the above RFC and vocational characteristics, the vocational expert identified other jobs that exist in significant numbers in this and other regions of the United States that claimant can perform. Cited jobs include new account interviewer, statements clerk and credit clerk.

11. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f), claimant is not and has not been under a "disability" as that term is defined in the Social Security Act, as amended, at any time through the date of this decision.

(Tr. at 19.)

On August 25, 2006, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 4-11.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on October 26, 2006.

LEGAL STANDARD

The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole 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 Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). This 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 of not disabled is appropriate.

Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined disabled. If not, proceed to step four.

Step four: Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.

Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.

Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995).

The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. The Commissioner bears the burden if the sequential evaluation process proceeds to step five. ...


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