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 October 24, 2005, plaintiff applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging that she became disabled on June 11, 2004. (Transcript (Tr.) at 88-95.) Plaintiff claimed disability based on asthma, kidney problems, depression, memory loss, coughing, shortness of breath, gall bladder problems, neck and shoulder pain, sleeping problems, and poor concentration. (Tr. at 108.)
Plaintiff's application was denied initially on April 12, 2006, and upon reconsideration on March 16, 2007. (Tr. at 77-81, 70-76.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on December 12, 2007. (Tr. at 23-54, 66.) Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by an attorney and testified through an interpreter. (Tr. at 23-45, 53-54.) A vocational expert also testified. (Tr. at 45-53.) In a decision issued on February 20, 2008, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 12-22.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 24, 2005, the application date (20 CFR 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: moderate, persistent asthma, back pain, major depressive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (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 light work except avoiding moderate exposure to temperature extremes and pulmonary irritants and mentally performing only simple routine tasks (unskilled work).
5. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
6. The claimant was born on June 15, 1969 and was 36 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 October 24, 2005, the date the application was filed (20 CFR 416.920(g)). (Tr. at 14-22.)
On June 25, 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 4-7.) On October 29, 2008, the Appeals Council granted plaintiff's request for more time to file a civil action. (Tr. at 2-3.) 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 ...