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Sutton v. Astrue

February 25, 2010

CHUTIMA UTHES SUTTON, 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"), partially denying her application for Disability Insurance benefits ("DIB"). Plaintiff claims that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in: 1) finding that her medical condition improved after November 16, 2005; 2) failing to properly consider her and her husband's testimony; and 3) using the "Grids" at step five. (Joint Stip. at 3-6, 11-14, 19-23.) Because the Agency's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant period is not supported by substantial evidence, it is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

II. SUMMARY OF PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for DIB on July 14, 2005, alleging that she had been unable to work since October 30, 2003, because of a right ear problem, right elbow/arm numbness, and depression. (Administrative Record ("AR") 74, 93.) The Agency denied the application initially and on reconsideration. (AR 65-69, 74-78.) Plaintiff then requested and was granted a hearing before an ALJ. (AR 59-60, 63.) Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified at the hearing on September 5, 2007. (AR 25-53.) On September 21, 2007, the ALJ issued his decision, finding that Plaintiff was disabled and entitled to benefits for a "closed period" from October 30, 2003 to November 16, 2005, but that, thereafter, she was not disabled. (AR 17-22.) Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council, which denied review. (AR 5-9.) She then commenced the instant action.

III. DISCUSSION

1. The ALJ's Finding That Medical Improvement Occurred After November 16, 2005

In her first claim of error, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's finding that her condition improved after November 16, 2005 was not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff points out that the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination for the closed period, i.e., that Plaintiff could perform light work but could not do work that required her to more than occasionally lift her right arm above shoulder level, was identical to the residual functional capacity determination for the period that followed. (Joint Stip. at 4.) Plaintiff argues that "it is impossible to reconcile the ALJ's decision [that Plaintiff was disabled before November 17, 2005 but not after] with these two stated residual functional capacity assessments." (Joint Stip. at 5.) Plaintiff further contends that there is no medical evidence to support these findings. (Joint Stip. at 5). She also argues that the ALJ erred in finding that she had no functional limitations as a result of her mental impairment. (Joint Stip. at 4-5.) For the following reasons, the Court concludes that the ALJ's residual functional determination is not supported by substantial evidence in the record.

The governing regulations provide that the responsibility for deciding a claimant's residual functional capacity is reserved to the Agency. 20 C.F.R. § 404.927(e)(2). Nevertheless, "a [residual functional capacity assessment] that fails to take into account a claimant's limitations is defective." Valentine v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). Furthermore, though the Agency's decision must be affirmed if it is supported by substantial evidence, meaning more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance, it may not be affirmed where the ALJ fails to set forth a "meaningful explanation," allowing the Court to assess the validity of the ALJ's reasons for reaching the decision. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882, 884-85 (9th Cir. 2006).

Here, the ALJ failed to sufficiently explain his residual functional capacity findings. He found that Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for the closed period was the same as her residual functional capacity for the period that followed. The ALJ ostensibly found that in both that Plaintiff could do light work except work requiring greater than occasional lifting above shoulder level with her right arm. (AR 18, 20.) Thus, if Plaintiff was unable to work in the closed period, it stands to reason that she was unable to work in the period that followed. The ALJ's failure to explain this contradiction requires remand.

In addition, the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding differs from the residual functional capacity he used in the hypothetical question to the vocational expert. In the hypothetical, the ALJ asked the vocational expert to assume that Plaintiff had mental limitations, i.e., that she would be restricted to no more than occasional contact with the public and that she could not perform work that required her to be a "problem solver for other employees" or to "make complex management-type decisions" for employees. (AR 48.) The vocational expert concluded that such an individual could not perform any of Plaintiff's past work because "much of that work requires more than occasional contact with the public. [¶] And much of that work also requires more than occasional keyboarding with the dominant hand." (AR 49.) In other words, the vocational expert's conclusion that Plaintiff could not perform her past work was expressly based on two limitations that the ALJ did not include in his residual functional capacity findings in his written decision, one of which being, in fact, a mental limitation that was expressly rejected in that determination.

The vocational expert also testified that the hypothetical person could not perform any other work existing in the economy because "[o]ther work would require . . . more than occasional contact with the public, and other work would also require more than occasional bilateral hand activities[.]" (AR 49.) Once again, these limitations were not included in the ALJ's residual functional capacity determination in his written decision. Nevertheless, in finding that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work or any other work during the closed period, it is clear that the ALJ relied on the vocational expert's testimony. (AR 19.)

The ALJ also misstated the vocational expert's testimony. According to the ALJ, "[t]he vocational expert [testified] that with limitations including no more than frequent use [of the right arm] for handling or fingering or repetitive use of the right hand for such things as prolonged keyboarding, the claimant could not perform past work." (AR 18.) This was not what the vocational expert said. As set forth above, the vocational expert testified that the hypothetical person could not perform Plaintiff's past work, or any other work, because such work would require "more than occasional contact with the public[,]" and because it would require "more than occasional keyboarding with the dominant hand." (RT 49-50.) The ALJ ignored this restriction in reaching his ultimate decision. (AR 18.)

Despite these problems, the Agency argues that any error committed by the ALJ in failing to incorporate these limitations in his findings was harmless because the ALJ ultimately relied on the vocational expert's testimony, which took into account all of Plaintiff's limitations. (Joint Stip. at 7-8.) To the extent that the errors bear solely on the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff was disabled during the closed period (for which, clearly, she cannot be granted any additional relief), the Court agrees. Nevertheless, the Court finds that these errors, along with other ...


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