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Barney v. Astrue

July 20, 2010


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


On September 11, 2009, plaintiff Effie Barney ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant"), the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, seeking review of a denial of supplemental security income benefits. [Docket No. 1.] On March 19, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 10, 12.] On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 15.] 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. 14, 17.] Pursuant to a September 18, 2009 case management order, the parties submitted a detailed, 14-page joint stipulation for decision on May 21, 2010. [Docket No. 16.] 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 that, as detailed herein, the Administrate Law Judge inappropriately discounted Plaintiff's subjective complaints and thus remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


Plaintiff has an eleventh grade education and was 44 years old on her alleged onset date of disability. (See Administrative Record ("AR") at 84, 561.) Plaintiff is also obese; she is four feet eleven inches and weighs approximately 270 pounds. (Id. at 140.) Her prior relevant work includes employment as a caregiver, sales clerk, assembler, and telemarketer. (Id. at 22, 63, 132-139, 553-554.)

On October 7, 2005, nearly five years ago, Plaintiff filed for supplemental security income ("SSI"), claiming that she has been disabled since December 30, 2004 due to a brown recluse spider bite, high blood pressure, and a thyroid condition. (See AR at 76, 84.) Plaintiff's application was denied after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 74, 76-80.)

On August 2, 2007, approximately two years after her application, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR at 558, 560-574.) On January 24, 2008, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's request for benefits ("January 2008 Decision"). (Id. at 55-63.)

Plaintiff appealed and, on July 11, 2008, the Appeals Council vacated the January 2008 Decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (See AR at 38-40, 42-45.) The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to give further consideration to Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 39.)

On February 13, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at another hearing before the ALJ. (AR at 539, 541-552.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Joseph Mooney, a VE. (Id. at 539, 553-557.)

On April 7, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 12-23.) Applying a well-established 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 SSI application date. (Id. at 14.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "[n]on-insulin diabetes mellitus, venous insufficiency in the left lower extremity with transient bouts of left lower extremity cellulitis, hypertension, and obesity with a history of diffuse body pain and obesity related sleep apnea[, and] questionably severe depression." (AR at 14 (bold omitted).)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairments, 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 RFC*fn2 and determined that she can perform light work, but limited her to "occasional climbing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling." (AR at 15 (bold omitted).) Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff lacks the ability to perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 22.)

At step five, based on Plaintiff's vocational factors and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform," including cleaner, housekeeper, and packager. (AR at 22(bold omitted).) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act because she could adjust to her impairment and find another type of gainful employment. (Id. at 12, 23.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 4-6, 8.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.



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 ...

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