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Sparkman v. Astrue

August 11, 2009

CHARLES SPARKMAN, 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 remand, 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 the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act) on August 25, 2005, alleging disability beginning on July 6, 2004, based on bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. (Transcript (Tr.) at 52-54, 64-70.) The application was denied initially on October 26, 2005, and upon reconsideration on March 30, 2006. (Tr. at 43-47, 41, 34-38.) Pursuant to plaintiff's timely request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on March 7, 2007. (Tr. at 33, 273-303.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. In a decision dated May 24, 2007, the ALJ entered the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 6, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b) and 404.1571 et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe combination of impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), bilateral moderately severe median neuropathy at the wrists and status post carpal tunnel release surgery (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).

4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).

5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, walk/stand six hours, sit six hours, and occasionally grip, grasp, push, pull, pinch, and perform fine manipulative activities (these are supported by his bilateral CTS, bilateral moderately severe median neuropathy at the wrists and status post carpal tunnel release surgery), and he has no postural, visual, communicative, environmental, or mental limitations.

6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).

7. The claimant was born on January 4, 1957 and was 47 years old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching advanced age, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).

8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).

9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).

10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1560(c) and 404.1566).

11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 6, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(Tr. at 16-23.)

On October 2, 2007, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for administrative review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 5-8.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on November 30, 2007.

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. 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. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing 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. 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, 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, 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, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized in the Ninth Circuit 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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