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Stackhouse v. Astrue

October 5, 2010

VIRGINIA STACKHOUSE, 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 August 20, 2009, plaintiff Virginia Stackhouse ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), seeking review of the denial of disability insurance benefits. [Docket No. 1.]

On March 12, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 8, 9.]

On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 10.] 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. 11, 15.]

On May 24, 2010, the parties submitted a detailed, 53-page joint stipulation for the resolution of issues presented in this case. [Docket No. 17.] The Court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

In sum, having studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") conspicuously erred in failing to provide a meaningful explanation in discounting the statements of a lay witness. The ALJ's parsimonious conclusion that "greater weight" was simply afforded to the "documented medical evidence" cannot be reconciled with Ninth Circuit precedent demanding that the ALJ supply "germane reasons." Accordingly, the Court remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 50 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has an eighth grade education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 37, 56, 123.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a rehabilitation supervisor, assembly worker, babysitter, housekeeper, and merchandise deliverer. (Id. at 26.)

On March 16, 2006, over four years ago, Plaintiff filed for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), alleging that she has been disabled since January 22, 2005 due to depression and anxiety. (See AR at 123-25, 143.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 67-71, 75-79.)

On February 25, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 37, 39-57.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Sharon Spabenta, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 57-63.)

On March 11, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 21-28.) Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process -- which is discussed 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 23.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of major depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, and anxiety. (Id.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairment, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.*fn1 (AR at 23.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that she can perform "a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: limited to simple repetitive tasks not requiring more than occasional interaction with the general public; and, no stress/fast paced production standard." (AR at 24 (emphasis omitted).)

Based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff lacks the ability to perform her past relevant work. (AR at 26.)

At step five, based on Plaintiff's vocational factors and the VE's testimony, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform," including "grader/sorter" and "laundry worker." (AR at 27 (emphasis omitted).) 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 1-3, 7.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Five-Step Inquiry to Ascertain a ...


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