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Pacheco v. Astrue

August 31, 2010

ELIZABETH PACHECO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's denial of disability benefits. As discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Elizabeth Pacheco was born on August 23, 1959, and was forty-nine years old at the time of her latest administrative hearing. [Administrative Record ("AR") 437, 524.] Plaintiff has at least a high school education and past relevant work experience as an instructional aide. [AR 437.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of a mental impairment, diabetes, problems with her spine, carpal tunnel syndrome, hearing loss and arthritis. [AR 21.]

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2004, alleging disability since January 23, 2004. [AR 429.] After the application was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing, which was held on March 3, 2006, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR 301.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff, a vocational expert, a medical expert, and Plaintiff's son. [AR 302.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on May 2, 2006. [AR 10.] When the Appeals Council denied review on August 30, 2006, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 347.]

On September 28, 2006, Plaintiff filed an action in the district court (Case No. EDCV 06-1032 CW). On April 5, 2007, the court entered an order and judgment remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings pursuant to a stipulation by the parties.

A second administrative hearing was held on September 7, 2007. [AR 415.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. [AR 416.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on September 26, 2007. [AR 324.]

On December 14, 2007, Plaintiff filed an action in the district court (Case No. EDCV 07-1594 CW). On July 31, 2008, the court entered an order and judgment remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings pursuant to a stipulation by the parties.

A third administrative hearing was held on November 7, 2008. [AR 524.] Plaintiff appeared with counsel, and testimony was taken from Plaintiff, a vocational expert, and Plaintiff's husband. [AR 525.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision filed on February 3, 2009. [AR 429.]

The present complaint was lodged on June 2, 2009, and filed on June 18, 2009. On November 17, 2009, Defendant filed an answer and Plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On January 15, 2010, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a court must review the administrative record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, ...


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