This social security action was submitted to the court, without oral argument, for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and remand. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, defendant's cross-motion is denied, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.
On February 13, 2002, plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging disability beginning June 22, 1988, based on depression, anxiety, and stress. (Transcript (Tr.) at 41, 57-59.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially in May 2002 and upon reconsideration in September 2002. (Tr. at 41-44, 48-51.) A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Antonio Acevedo-Torres on May 1, 2003. (Tr. at 52, 265-82.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. (Tr. at 265-66.) In a decision issued on June 10, 2003, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 19-29.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the non-disability requirements for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits set forth in Section 216(i) of the Social Security Act and is insured for benefits through December 31, 1993.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset of disability.
3. Claimant had the following medically determinable impairment(s): major depression without psychotic features.
4. The claimant did not have any impairment or impairments that significantly limited his ability to perform basic work-related activities; therefore, the claimant did not have a severe impairment
5. The claimant was not under a "disability" as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time on or before December 31, 1993, the date he last met the disability insured status requirements. (Tr. at 28-29.)
On June 26, 2003, plaintiff's counsel requested review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 9.) On October 12, 2007, after four years of correspondence from plaintiff's counsel regarding the status of plaintiff's request for review, the Appeals Council finally dismissed the request as untimely. (Tr. at 12-14.) Plaintiff's counsel immediately advised the Appeals Council that the request for review had been timely filed and requested that the Appeals Council reconsider its dismissal. (Tr. at 9-11.) After receiving no response, plaintiff filed suit in federal court on December 11, 2007, requesting that the court instruct the Appeals Council to issue an order on the merits of plaintiff's request for review. (Case No. CIV-07-2685 GGH, Compl.) After the suit was commenced, the Commissioner offered to deem plaintiff's request for review to be timely filed. On October 31, 2008, the court dismissed the lawsuit as moot but without prejudice to plaintiff's ability to return to court should it be necessary to enforce the Commissioner's promise. (Id., Order at 2.)
On December 18, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's June 10, 2003 decision. (Tr. at 7-11.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on February 16, 2009.
The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence 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. See 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. 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. See 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, see 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, see 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 the Social Security regulations. Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 404.1520, sets forth the test used to assess disability. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 ...