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Garcia v. Astrue

June 17, 2010

MARIA GARCIA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. As discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Maria Garcia was born on August 25, 1962, and was forty-four years old at the time of her latest administrative hearing. [AR 132, 97.] She completed the sixth grade and has no past relevant work experience. [AR 97, 111.] Plaintiff claims disability on the basis of diabetes, arthritis, mental problems, and depression. [AR 488.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff's complaint was lodged on June 5, 2009, and filed on June 10, 2009. On December 1, 2009, defendant filed plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On March 10, 2010, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") on July 25, 2001, alleging disability since May 3, 1997. [AR 129, 453.] After the application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on September 12, 2002, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Rogers. [AR 453, 465.] Plaintiff appeared with a non-attorney representative, and testimony was taken from plaintiff, plaintiff's mother, and a vocational expert. [AR 453.] The ALJ denied benefits on November 26, 2002. [AR 465.] When the Appeals Council denied review on October 17, 2003, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 96.]

Plaintiff then applied for SSI on January 31, 2005, again alleging disability since May 3, 1997. [JS 2, AR 96.] After the application was denied and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on January 29, 2007, before ALJ Zirlin. [JS 2, AR 113.] Plaintiff appeared with an attorney and testimony was taken from plaintiff and a vocational expert. The ALJ denied benefits in a decision dated February 20, 2007. [JS 2.] When the Appeals Council denied review on April 9, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [Id.]

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a 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." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

V. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, ...


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