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Ballard v. Astrue

September 22, 2009

MICHAEL E. BALLARD, 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 the matter is remanded for payment of benefits.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act) on July 21, 2005, claiming disability based on difficulty breathing and depression, with an alleged onset date of November 1, 2004. (Transcript (Tr.) at 53-55.) The application was denied initially in November 2005 and upon reconsideration in March 2006. (Tr. at 32-46.) Pursuant to plaintiff's timely request, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on August 21, 2007. (Tr. at 47, 273-310.) Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with a non-attorney representative, and it was agreed that plaintiff's onset date should be amended to June 1, 2005. (Tr. at 14.) Plaintiff testified, as did a vocational expert. (Tr. at 273-74.) In a decision dated October 26, 2007, the ALJ entered the following findings:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2010.

2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2005, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b) and 404.1571 et seq.).

3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Hepatitis C and lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease (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 perform a significant range of light work tasks. He is able to lift/carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour day; sit for six hours in an eight-hour day; push/pull in an unlimited fashion; and perform postural activities frequently. He is restricted from climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolding and is to avoid concentrated exposure to cold, humidity, dust, fumes, and other respiratory irritants.

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

7. The claimant was born on July 27, 1954 and was 50 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 a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564)

9. The claimant has a semi-skilled past work background which does not provide any transferable skills to other work.

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(b) and 404.1566).

11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 1, 2005 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)).

(Tr. at 16-23.)

On April 10, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for administrative review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 4-6, 9.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on June 9, 2008.

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 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. ...


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