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Bowen v. Astrue

November 16, 2009

JOYCEE D. BOWEN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John E. Mcdermott United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR PAYMENT OF BENEFITS PROCEEDINGS

On January 12, 2009, Joycee D. Bowen ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant"), proceeding in forma pauperis, filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for both Social Security disability insurance benefits and Supplemental Social Security income. The Commissioner filed an Answer on April 22, 2009.

On July 27, 2009, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). The matter is now ready for decision.

After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this case should be remanded for an immediate award of benefits.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is a 49 year old female who claims disability because of pain and fatigue that render her unable to work. (AR 85; JS 2:1.) Plaintiff alleges an onset date of February 10, 2004. (AR 85.)

Plaintiff's claims were denied initially on May 26, 2006, and upon reconsideration on March 1, 2007. (AR 32.) Claimant filed a timely request for hearing on April 27, 2007. (Id.) She appeared and testified at a hearing held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on July 31, 2008, in Orange, California. (Id.)

The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 29, 2008. (AR 32-40.) The ALJ concluded that Claimant has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act from February 10, 2004, through the date of the decision. (AR 39.) The ALJ determined that the Claimant suffers from the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, chronic ear infections, and chronic arthralgia. (AR 34.) However, the ALJ found that Claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). (AR 35.) In particular, the ALJ found that Claimant is capable of performing her past relevant work as a cashier. (AR 39.)

Plaintiff timely filed a request for review of the ALJ's unfavorable decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on November 24, 2008. (JS 2.)

DISPUTED ISSUES

As reflected in the Joint Stipulation, the disputed issues that Plaintiff is raising as grounds for reversal and remand are as follows:

1. Whether the ALJ properly considered all of the relevant medical evidence of record in rendering his unfavorable decision. (JS 3.)

2. Whether the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's subjective complaints and properly assessed Plaintiff's credibility. (JS 3.)

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court reviews the ALJ's decision to determine whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the proper legal standards were applied. DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence means "'more than a mere scintilla' but less than a preponderance." Saelee v. Chater, 94 F.3d 520, 521-22 (9th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal quotations and citations omitted). This Court must review the record as a whole and consider adverse as well as supporting evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be upheld. Morgan v. Comm'r, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882 (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)); see also Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

DISCUSSION

The Court concludes that the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff is not disabled is unsupported by substantial evidence. The ALJ correctly concluded that Claimant's mental impairments do not prevent her from doing her past cashier work. However, the ALJ erred in concluding that Claimant's chronic pain and fatigue do not preclude her from substantial gainful activity.

A. The Sequential Evaluation

The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or... can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

The first step is to determine "whether the claimant is presently engaging in substantially gainful activity." Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). If the claimant is engaging in substantially gainful activity, disability benefits will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit the claimant's ability to work. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996). The ALJ, however, must consider the combined effect of all the claimant's impairments on his or her ability to function, regardless of whether each alone is sufficiently severe. Id. Also, the ALJ must consider the claimant's subjective symptoms in determining severity. Id.

Third, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment is listed, or equivalent to an impairment listed, in Appendix I of the regulations. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. If the impediment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141.

Fourth, the ALJ must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work. Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844-45 (9th Cir. 2001). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth step and must determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing any other substantial gainful activity. Moore v. Apfel, 216 F.3d 864, 869 (9th Cir. 2000).

The claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four, consistent with the general rule that, at all times, the burden is on the claimant to establish his or her entitlement to benefits. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. Once this prima facie case is established by the claimant, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant may perform other gainful activity. Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006).

B. The ALJ Correctly Concluded That Claimant's Mental Impairments Do Not Prevent Her From Engaging In ...


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