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Bradley v. Astrue

June 25, 2009

ADELLE C. FIGUEROA BRADLEY, 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

Before the Court is Plaintiff's appeal of a decision by Defendant Social Security Administration ("the Agency"), denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred by: 1) finding that she could perform past relevant work as a cook, manager, and animal caretaker; 2) failing to consider a friend's statement about her condition; 3) improperly rejecting a state agency physician's findings about the severity of her mental impairment; 4) improperly rejecting her treating psychologist's opinion; and 5) failing to pose a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert. (Joint Stip. at 3-4, 10-11, 13-14, 16-17, 20-21.) For the following reasons, the Agency's decision is affirmed.

II. BACKGROUND

On December 6, 2004, Plaintiff applied for SSI, alleging that she had been unable to work since January 30, 2004, due to carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back pain, depression, fibromyalgia, and arthritis. (Administrative Record ("AR") 33, 79, 89.) The Agency denied the application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 34-39, 44-48.) Plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 27-29.) On January 25, 2007, Plaintiff appeared with counsel at the hearing and testified. (AR 420-46.) On March 16, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision denying benefits. (AR 13-21.) After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (AR 5-7), she commenced this action.

III. ANALYSIS

A. The ALJ's Finding That Plaintiff Could Perform Her Past Relevant Work

In her first claim, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding that she could perform her past relevant jobs as cook and manager was not supported by the vocational expert's testimony and that the vocational expert's testimony that she could perform the job of animal caretaker was erroneous. (Joint Stip. at 3-4.) The Agency does not challenge Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ erred as to the cook and manager jobs, but argues that any error was harmless because he correctly concluded that Plaintiff could perform the job of animal caretaker.*fn1 (Joint Stip. at 4-10.) For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that the ALJ erred when he concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a cook and as a manager but did not err when he found that Plaintiff had the mental capacity to perform the job of animal caretaker.

The vocational expert testified that, based on Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (as set forth by the ALJ), Plaintiff could not perform the jobs of cook or manager. (AR 444.) The ALJ found that she could, purportedly relying on the vocational expert's testimony. (AR 20.) This finding was erroneous.

As for the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff had the mental capacity to perform the job of animal caretaker, the Court concludes that this finding was not erroneous. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the mental capacity to perform jobs that involve simple, non-complex work tasks. (AR 16.) He concluded that, therefore, Plaintiff could perform the job of animal caretaker, which requires a reasoning level of two. Plaintiff contends that this was error. She argues that someone who is limited to performing simple, non-complex tasks is not capable of performing work that requires level-two reasoning. (Joint Stip. at 3-4.) The Court rejects this contention.

The ability to perform simple, non-complex work tasks is consistent with reasoning level two. See, e.g., Hackett v. Burnett, 395 F.3d 1168, 1176 (10th Cir. 2005) (noting that level-two reasoning appears more consistent with "simple and routine work tasks"); Meissl v. Barnhart, 403 F. Supp. 2d 981, 983-84 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (holding that vocational expert's testimony that claimant who was restricted to simple and repetitive tasks could perform job requiring a reasoning level of two was not inconsistent with the DOT). Because Plaintiff can perform simple, non-complex tasks, she can perform jobs that require level-two reasoning. For this reason, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in concluding that Plaintiff had the mental capacity to perform the job of animal caretaker.*fn2

B. Lay Witness Testimony

In her second claim of error, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to consider a report completed by her friend Jamie Yodes on January 9, 2005. (Joint Stip. at 10-11.) In that report, Yodes noted that she was with Plaintiff three or four days a week. (AR 62.) Yodes reported that Plaintiff had "really bad insomnia and usually her hands wake her up due to pain"; that she has pain dressing and washing; that she cooks less frequently now; that she could only use one hand; and that she could walk no more than two blocks at a time. (AR 63, 64, 67.) Yodes believed that Plaintiff could not work because "her left hand is still healing," and she had "fallen into a deep depression." (AR 69.) In his decision, the ALJ stated that he had "generously considered . . . witness testimony," but neither addressed Yodes' testimony specifically nor offered reasons for discounting it. (AR 19.)

The ALJ's failure to discuss Yodes' testimony was error. An ALJ is required to consider lay witness statements and may only reject them for reasons that are germane to the witness. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1053 (9th Cir. 2006); Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918-19 (9th Cir. 1993) (holding that ALJ must ...


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