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Rey v. Astrue

March 25, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Ralph David Rey seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Social Security Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiff was born on July 31, 1957. (Administrative Record ("AR") 20.) He completed at least a high school education and has past relevant work as a janitor, laborer, general construction worker, and tree cutter. (AR 20.)

Plaintiff filed an application for SSDI and SSI benefits on May 25, 2007, alleging disability beginning December 1, 2006 due to seizures, coronary artery disease, and hypertension. (AR 12, 125.) The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially on July 25, 2007, and again upon reconsideration, on October 16, 2007. (AR 12.) Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jesse J. Pease held a hearing on January 15, 2009, at which Plaintiff, his wife, Theresa M. Rey, and vocational expert Sandra M. Fioretti testified. (AR 23.)

The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application on March 3, 2009. (AR 12-22.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2008. (AR 14.)*fn1 The ALJ then applied the five-step sequential analysis mandated by the Social Security Regulations*fn2 in reaching his decision regarding Plaintiff's application for SSI benefits. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of December 1, 2006. (AR 14.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of alcoholism, alcohol-induced seizure disorder, and alcohol-induced liver disease. (AR 14.) After determining that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or equal any listed impairment, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform "less than a full range of light exertion." (AR 14-20.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently"; "can stand and walk for 6 hours out of an 8 hour work day"; "cannot climb"; "can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl"; and "should avoid hazardous conditions such as working at heights or with dangerous machinery." (AR 15.)

The ALJ concluded that, given this residual functional capacity, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AR 20.) The ALJ found, however, that given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. (AR 21.) These jobs include bench assembler, inspector, hand packer, and small products assembler. (AR 21.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act from December 1, 2006 through the date of the decision. (AR 22.)

The Social Security Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on June 25, 2009. (AR 1-3.) Plaintiff then timely filed this action on August 19, 2009. The parties filed a Joint Stipulation of the disputed issues on February 26, 2010. Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to consider all of the relevant medical evidence of record in the case and, in particular, disregarding the conclusions of the psychiatric consultative examiner, Dr. Rooks; and (2) improperly assessing the credibility of Plaintiff and his wife. (Joint Stip. 3-13.) Plaintiff requests that this Court vacate the ALJ's decision and remand solely for an award of benefits, or, in the alternative, that the matter be remanded for further proceedings. (Joint Stip. 17.) Defendant requests that the ALJ decision be affirmed, or if the Court should find for the Plaintiff, that the matter be remanded for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. 17-18.) Because the Court finds that the ALJ erred by engaging in an improper credibility determination, the Court will only address that issue.

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Social Security Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration's disability determination unless it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)(citing Stout v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is evidence that "a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)(citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing court "must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Analysis

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by improperly discrediting his and his wife's testimony concerning the nature and extent of Plaintiff's symptoms and functional limitations. (Joint Stip. 10-13.) The Court agrees.

A. Applicable Law

To determine whether a claimant's testimony about subjective pain or symptoms is credible, the ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035-36). "First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment 'which could reasonably be expected to produce' the alleged pain or other symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036 (quoting Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 344 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc)). "[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain." Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d at 345. To the extent that an individual's claims of functional limitations and restrictions are ...

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