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Rodriguez v. Astrue

March 25, 2010

DONNA RODRIGUEZ, 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 FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

PROCEEDINGS

On December 26, 2008, Donna Rodriguez ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") filed a complaint seeking review of the decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. The Commissioner filed an Answer on March 30, 2009. On September 14, 2009, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). The matter is now ready for decision.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), both parties consented to proceed before this Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the pleadings, transcripts, and administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and remanded for further proceedings in accordance with law and with this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Donna Rodriguez is a 47 year old female who was determined to have the medically determinable severe impairment of post-cervical discectomy and fusion with residual neck and back pain and left side weakness and numbness. (AR 461.) She alleges disability since June 1, 2000. (AR 459.) She has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2002 (AR 461.)

On July 31, 2002, Plaintiff Donna Rodriguez filed an application for SSI benefits. (AR 459.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially, on reconsideration, and by Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") decision on December 16, 2003. The Claimant appealed this decision and, on March 24, 2004, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (AR 15.)

Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held before ALJ Keith Varni on November 15, 2005 in San Bernardino, California. ALJ Varni issued an unfavorable decision on February 16, 2006. (AR 15-22.) Again, the Appeals Council remanded for further proceedings. (AR 459.)

Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held before ALJ Philip E. Moulaison on July 3, 2008, in San Bernardino, California. (JS 2.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 22, 2008. (AR 459-67.) The ALJ determined that, although Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work, she can perform alternate jobs in the national economy and thus has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since the application date. (AR 466-77.) The Appeals Council declined to review the matter. (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 held that Plaintiff can perform the job of bench assembler?

2. Whether the ALJ properly considered the treating clinician's opinion regarding Plaintiff's assessed GAF score of 41?

3. Whether the ALJ properly considered the consultative examiner's opinion of psychiatrist Dr. Linda Smith?

4. Whether the ALJ properly considered the severity of Plaintiff's mental impairment? 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). The ALJ has the responsibility "to determine credibility, resolve conflicts in medical testimony and resolve ambiguities," but the ALJ's findings must be supported by "specific, cogent reasons." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998.) 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 reverses the ALJ's decision and remands for further proceedings. The ALJ failed to develop the record fully regarding Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Costello and the combined effects of Plaintiff's multiple ailments and multiple medications on her functioning. The ALJ also improperly rejected Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony.

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. ยงยง 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step ...


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