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Lovejoy v. Astrue

July 19, 2010

DONNA LOVEJOY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On August 13, 2009, plaintiff Donna Lovejoy ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), seeking review of the denial of disability insurance benefits. [Docket No. 1.] On March 3, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 10, 11.] On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 17.] Both Plaintiff and Defendant subsequently consented to proceed for all purposes before the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Docket Nos. 18, 20.] On June 17, 2010, the parties submitted a detailed, 23-page joint stipulation for the resolution of issues presented in this case. [Docket No. 25.] The Court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge's rejection of Plaintiff's subjective complaints -- based on the ALJ's improperly substituted judgment for medical opinion and perceived inconsistencies where none meaningful exist -- is not warranted on this record, and remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 50 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has completed high school and two years of college. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 26, 29, 89, 99.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a material estimator, United States Post Office carrier, program manager, project manager, scheduler, and planner. (Id. at 17, 94, 113; see also id. at 29-39.)

On October 19, 2006, nearly four years ago, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), alleging that she has been disabled since June 2, 2005 due to hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis. (See AR at 53, 89, 93.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 53, 54, 57-60, 61, 62-66.)

On August 4, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR at 26, 28-52.)

On September 2, 2008, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 12-17.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process -- which is discussed below -- the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of disability. (Id. at 14.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe fibromyalgia. (Id.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairment, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.*fn1 (AR at 14.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that she can perform light work, but "should avoid even moderate exposure to dust, fumes and gases, and should not work at heights or around hazardous machinery." (AR at 14 (bold omitted).) Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff has the ability to perform her past relevant work as an "estimator, scheduler, planner, or project manager." (Id. at 17 (bold omitted).) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 12, 17.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 4.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Upon review, Plaintiff and Defendant stipulate that the ALJ fairly and accurately summarized the medical and non-medical evidence of record, except Plaintiff disputes the summary to the extent stated in her portions of the joint stipulation. (Joint Stip. at 3.)

II. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Five-Step Inquiry To Ascertain A Cognizable Disability

A claimant must satisfy three fundamental elements to be eligible for disability benefits: (1) a medically-determinable impairment; (2) the impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity; and (3) the impairment is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). A well-established five-step sequential inquiry is utilized to assess whether a particular claimant satisfies these three elements. The inquiry proceeds as follows:

First, is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant cannot be considered disabled.

Second, does the claimant suffer from a "severe" impairment, to wit, one continuously lasting at least 12 months? If not, the claimant is not disabled.

Third, does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment specifically identified as a disability by the Commissioner under 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined to be disabled.

Fourth, is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled.

Fifth, does the claimant have the so-called "residual functional capacity" to perform some other type of work? The critical question posed here is whether the claimant can, in light of the impairment and his or her age, education and work experience, adjust to another form of gainful employment?

If a claimant is found "disabled" or "not disabled" along any of these steps, there is no need to complete the remaining inquiry. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4) & ...


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