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 with the direction to award benefits.
On June 24, 2005, plaintiff applied for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act) and for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Act, alleging that he became disabled on June 7, 2004. (Transcript (Tr.) at 59-68, 261-65.) Plaintiff claimed disability based on back pain and restrictions caused by a compression fracture at L1, a bulging disk at L4, irritated facet nerves, and arthritis on vertebrae. (Tr. at 59-60.) Plaintiff's application was denied by the agency initially on December 13, 2005, and upon reconsideration on April 19, 2006. (Tr. at 37-43, 47, 49-54, 266-78.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on August 8, 2007. (Tr. at 55, 293-330.) Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by an attorney and testified, as did a vocational expert. (Tr. at 293-94.) In a decision issued on September 27, 2007, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 17-27.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 7, 2004, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: back pain, right leg racidulopoathy [sic], GERD, depression (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. 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 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
5. 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. He can lift/carry push/pull 20 pounds occasionally and lift/carry push/pull 10 pounds frequently. He can sit 8 hours in an 8 hour day with normal breaks, and with sit/stand options at will and leaving work stations. He can stand/walk 6 hours in an 8 hour workday with normal breaks and no prolonged walking or standing. He cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, and kneel.
6. Tom Reed, an impartial vocational expert, testified as to the vocational aspects of this case. Upon review of the claimant's work history in the file and after hearing the claimant's testimony concerning his past relevant work, he testified that the claimant has past relevant work as a teacher, D.O.T. 092-227.010 specific vocational preparation time (SVP) of 7, light work; tutor, D.O.T. 099-277.034 SVP 7, light work; and computer analyst, D.O.T. 199-267.014 SVP 7, sedentary work.
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 7, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f)).
On October 30, 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 6-10, 13.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on December 23, 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. ...