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Kingston v. Astrue

August 6, 2010

LINDA KINGSTON, 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

I. INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY

On September 4, 2009, plaintiff Linda M. Kingston ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), seeking review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

On March 9, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 12, 13, 14.]

On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 16.] 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. 17, 18.]

Pursuant to a September 29, 2009 case management order, the parties submitted a detailed, 25-page joint stipulation for decision on May 6, 2010. [Docket No. 21.] 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 the ALJ erred in his step-two analysis by failing to find Plaintiff's mental and physical impairments were severe, which were established by (1) the opinion of the treating physician Dr. Ang; and (2) the opinion of Dr. Pieroni and his team from the Tri-City Mental Health Center. The Court thus remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II. PERTINENT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 50 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has a high school equivalent education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 66, 156, 1334, 1380, 1410.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a teacher's assistant at School of Fashion and Design for Handicapped Adults in Alhambra, California, which is run by Plaintiff's mother. (Id. at 176, 1335, 1436.)

Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB and SSI on February 6, 2002, alleging that she has been disabled since May 31, 2000 due to depression and diabetes mellitus.*fn1

(AR at 61, 156, 1302, 1312.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 60, 61, 90, 95, 100, 1306, 1307, 1312, 1313.)

On November 19, 2003, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR at 65, 1326, 1330-1353.) On April 28, 2004, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's request for benefits ("April 2004 Decision"). (Id. at 65-75.)

Plaintiff appealed the April 2004 Decision and, on September 23, 2005, the Appeals Council vacated the April 2004 Decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (AR at 121-124.) The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to "[o]btain additional evidence concerning [Plaintiff's] mental impairment(s)[,]...

[o]btain evidence from a medical expert (who is an expert in psychiatry) to clarify the nature and severity of [Plaintiff's impairment,]... [f]urther evaluate [Plaintiff's] mental impairments in accordance with... 20 CFR 404.1520a and 416.920a,... [and g]ive further consideration to [Plaintiff's] maximum residual functional capacity[.]" (Id. at 122-123.)

On January 17, 2006, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a second hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 80, 1377, 1380-1405, 1408-1409.) On July 27, 2006, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits ("July 2006 Decision"). (Id. at 80-86.)

Plaintiff appealed the July 2006 Decision and, on February 15, 2008, the Appeals Council vacated the July 2006 Decision and remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (AR at 152-154.) The Appeals Council again directed the ALJ to "[f]urther evaluate [Plaintiff's] subjective complaints[,]... [f]urther evaluate [Plaintiff's mental impairments[,]... [and g]ive further consideration to [Plaintiff's] maximum residual functional capacity[,]" among other things. (Id. at 153.)

On August 12, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a third hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 20, 1410-1413, 1427-1436, 1440-1441.) Psychiatrist Charles Agler, M.D. ("Dr. Agler"), and internist Harvey Alpern, M.D. ("Dr. Alpern"), both medical experts ("ME"), and Gail Maron, a vocational expert ("VE"), also testified. (Id. at 20, 1414-1427, 1436-1439.)

On November 12, 2008, more than six years after her initial applications, the ALJ once again denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 20-27.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, which is discussed in detail 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 22.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from "diabetes and a mood disorder," (AR at 22), but concluded that Plaintiff "does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments." (Id. at 25 (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.*fn2 (AR at 26.) The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn3 ("RFC") and determined that Plaintiff has no exertional limitations and has a mild limitation in social functioning and a mild limitation in concentration, persistence or pace. (Id. at 25, 26.)

Based on Plaintiff's RFC and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work as a teacher's aide. (AR at 26.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 21, 27.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 7-9, 15-16.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. 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 ...


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