This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.
On March 7, 2006, plaintiff Mai Vang applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging that she became disabled on December 11, 2003. (Transcript (Tr.) at 53-60.) Plaintiff claimed disability based on low back pain, pain in the area of her C-section scars, depression, a sleeping problem, slow learning, poor concentration, poor memory, dizziness, and headaches. (Tr. at 38.) Plaintiff's application was denied by the agency initially in December 2006 and upon reconsideration in May 2007. (Tr. at 38-43, 30-34.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on March 6, 2008. (Tr. at 337-51.) Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by a non-attorney and testified through an interpreter. (Id.) In a decision issued on April 30, 2008, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 7-16.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 7, 2006, the application date (20 CFR 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe combination of impairments: mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, GERD, and hypertension (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b).
5. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965). 6. The claimant was born on January 1, 1969 and is 39 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.963).
7. The claimant is not able to communicate in English, and is considered in the same way as an individual who is illiterate in English.
8. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
9. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).
10. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since March 7, 2006, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)). (Tr. at 12-16.)
On August 28, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. at 2-4.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on October 27, 2008.
The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:
Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
Step two: Does the claimant have a "severe" impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding of not disabled is appropriate.
Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
Step four: Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled.
Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995).
The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. The Commissioner bears the burden if the sequential evaluation process proceeds to step five. Id.; Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
Plaintiff Mai Vang advances three arguments in her motion for summary judgment. First, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ rejected the opinions of her treating physician and found her mental impairment to be nonsevere without a legitimate basis for so doing. Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate and credit her testimony and the third-party statements of her son regarding the nature and extent of her functional limitations. Third, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in ...