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Montoya v. Astrue

May 6, 2009

DAVID MICHAEL MONTOYA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. As discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff David Montoya was born on March 10, 1956, and was fifty-one years old at the time of his latest administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 24, 51.] He has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a courier and dye casting machine operator. [AR 22.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of problems in his neck, middle back, lower spine and left hip, right eye vision loss, and left ear hearing loss. [AR 154.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff's complaint was lodged on May 28, 2008, and filed on June 2, 2008. On December 4, 2008, defendant filed an answer and plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On February 10, 2009, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on September 30, 2005, alleging disability since January 1, 2001. [AR 17, 137.] After the application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on October 11, 2006, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Stuart M. Kaye. [AR 51.] Plaintiff appeared without counsel, and testimony was taken from plaintiff and vocational expert Sandra Trost. [AR 52.] A supplemental hearing was held on April 11, 2007, before ALJ Kaye. [AR 24.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff, medical expert Arthur Lorber, and vocational expert Heidi Paul. [AR 25.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on September 24, 2007. [AR 17-23.] When the Appeals Council denied review on April 8, 2008, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 2-4.]

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a court must review the administrative record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

V. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, ...


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