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Rankins v. Astrue

October 22, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge



On December 17, 2009, plaintiff Theresa Rankins ("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. 4.]

On February 16, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 11, 13.]

Pursuant to a December 18, 2009 order regarding further proceedings, Plaintiff submitted a brief in support of her complaint ("Pl.'s Br.") on March 22, 2010. [Docket No. 14.] On April 13, 2010, Defendant submitted his opposition brief ("Def's. Br."). [Docket No. 15.]

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.]

On April 26, 2010, Plaintiff filed her reply brief ("Reply"). [Docket No. 20.] The Court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' written submissions and the administrative record, the Court concludes that, as detailed below, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in his step-two analysis by failing to find Plaintiff's mental impairment was severe, which was established by Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist Todd M. Hutton, M.D. The Court thus remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


Plaintiff, who was 49 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has a college education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 20, 23, 143, 151.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a customer service representative, retail sales clerk, and an assembler/tester of electronics. (Id. at 16, 44.)

Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB and SSI on January 17, 2007, alleging that she has been disabled since November 5, 2005 due to chronic headaches, vision impairment, anxiety attacks, and pain. (AR at 47, 49, 143, 147.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 47, 48, 49, 53, 63, 68, 75, 76.)

On March 10, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 20, 22-44.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Elizabeth Ramos, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 20, 44-46.)

On April 23, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 8-17.) 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 10.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "chronic headaches and disc protrusions at multiple levels of the cervical spine." (ARat 11(emphasis and citations omitted).)

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 12.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that she can "lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, without further significant limitation." (AR at 12 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff can perform her past relevant work as a customer service representative, retail sales clerk, or assembler/tester of electronics. (AR at 16.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 9, 17.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 4.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


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 not, the claimant is not disabled.

Third, does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment specifically identified as a disability by the Commissioner under 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1? If so, ...

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