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, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and this matter is remanded with the direction to award benefits.
On April 19, 2000, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act), alleging onset of disability on May 25, 1994.*fn1 (Transcript (Tr.) at 218-20, 233, 254-58.) The application was denied initially on September 15, 2000, and upon reconsideration on February 8, 2001. (Tr. at 199-208.) Pursuant to plaintiff's timely request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on May 1, 2002, at which time plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified. (Tr. at 209, 812-50.) In a decision issued on August 9, 2002, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled through June 30, 2000, his date last insured. (Tr. at 738-48.) On December 11, 2004, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case for further proceedings. (765-76, 777-81.) On remand, a supplemental hearing was held before the same ALJ on December 20, 2005. (Tr. at 851-81.) In a decision dated July 28, 2006, the ALJ again determined that plaintiff was not disabled through his date last insured. (Tr. at 21-29.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2000.
2. The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue, December 23, 1997, which is the date after the prior Administrative Law Judge's decision was issued, through his date last insured, June 30, 2000 (20 CFR 404.1520(b) and 404.1571 et seq.).
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairment: continued difficulties following a lumbar fusion (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled 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, I find that, during the period at issue, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to lift 10 pounds occasionally. He was capable of moving small objects throughout the workday. He was capable of standing and walking in combination no more than 30 minutes at a time for a total not [to] exceed two hours in a workday. He was capable of sitting for the remainder of the day. He could not climb ladders or scaffolding although he could climb stairs. He could not work at heights, around vibrations or around hazardous, moving machinery. Any mild mental limitations would not serve to further decrease the claimant's residual functional capacity, even when considered in combination with his back impairment.
6. Through the date last insured, the claimant was unable to perform past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on April 16, 1967, and was 32 years old on the date last insured, which is defined as a "younger individual age 18-44" (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. Through the date last insured, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 404.1560(c) and 404.1566).
11. The claimant was not under a "disability," as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from December 23, 1997 through June 30, 2000, the date last insured (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).
On August 7, 2006, plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 17, 704-34.) The Appeals Council denied the request on August 3, 2007. (Tr. at 10-14.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on September 19, 2007.
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 has been 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 conclusively presumed 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. ...