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Allen v. Astrue

November 2, 2010

CAROLYN ALLEN, 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 October 13, 2009, plaintiff Carolyn Allen ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), seeking review of a denial of supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

On March 2, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 16, 17, 18.]

On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 19.] 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. 22, 25.]

Pursuant to an October 14, 2009 case management order, the parties submitted a detailed, 26-page joint stipulation for decision on May 5, 2010. [Docket No. 24.] The Court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes that the ALJ violated the law of the case doctrine and the rule of mandate doctrine by reassessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity as it relates to her physical limitations; Plaintiff's physical limitations were established by prior decisions and not subject to revisitation. The Court thus remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II. PERTINENT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 51 years of age on the date of her first administrative hearing, has a high school education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 80, 508, 685.) Her past relevant work includes employment as an assignment clerk. (Id. at 103, 623.)

Plaintiff filed for SSI on November 29, 2002, alleging that she has been disabled since August 13, 1997 due to arthritis, high blood pressure, pancreatitis, back and leg impairments, insomnia, depression, stress, and pain. (AR at 62, 80-83.) Plaintiff's application, which was designated as a "prototype" case,*fn1 was denied on March 14, 2003, after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 61, 62-65, 66.)

On September 25, 2003, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR at 508, 510-19, 521-22.) A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. (Id. at 519-21.) On December 3, 2003, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision denying Plaintiff's request for benefits ("December 2003 Decision"). (Id. at 37-42.)

Plaintiff appealed the December 2003 Decision, which appeal was denied. (AR at 5-8, 32.) Plaintiff then sought review in this Court, Case No. CV 04-8377 MLG, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision denying her claim. (Id. at 557.) On July 6, 2005, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings and directed the ALJ to properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff's examining psychiatrist Barry Edelman, M.D. ("Dr. Edelman") and non-examining physician C.H. Dudley, M.D. ("Dr. Dudley"). (Id. at 557-65 ("Court's July 6, 2005 Order").) On August 19, 2005, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the action to the ALJ. (Id. at 569.)

On April 4, 2006, a second administrative hearing was held. (AR at 598.) No testimony was taken at the hearing. (See id. at 600-02.)

On September 8, 2006, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits ("September 2006 Decision"). (AR at 530-36.) Plaintiff again sought review in this Court. (Joint Stip. at 3.) On September 18, 2007, the parties entered into a stipulation for remand of the action to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings, which was ordered by the Court. (AR at 642-44, 648-49, 650-51.) The parties stipulated to a finding that Plaintiff was disabled as of January 1, 2006, and directed the ALJ to comply with the Court's July 6, 2005 Order with respect to the period prior to January 1, 2006. (Id. at 643.) On October 26, 2007, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the action to a new ALJ. (Id. at 647.)

On April 8, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a third hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 678, 685-91.) Nick Korso, a VE, also testified. (Id. at 691-93.)

On May 27, 2009, more than six years after her initial application, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, in which she found Plaintiff disabled as of January 1, 2006. (AR at 612-26.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for the period prior to January 1, 2006. (Id. at 613, 625.)

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, which is discussed in detail below, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her SSI application date. (AR at 615.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from "hypertension, low back pain, degenerative disc disease, status post right foot surgery and chronic pancreatitis," (AR at 615 (emphasis omitted)), but concluded that Plaintiff's "medically determinable mental impairment of depression does not cause more than minimal limitation in [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic mental work activities and is therefore non-severe." (Id. at 616.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that, prior to January 1, 2006, the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.*fn2 (AR at 619, 625.) The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn3 ("RFC") and determined that Plaintiff has the "capacity to perform medium work . . . with occasional stooping, crouching and kneeling." (Id. at 619 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff lacks the ability to perform her past relevant work. (AR at 623.)

At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC 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 hand packager and assembler. (AR at 624-25.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act prior to January 1, 2006. (Id. at 625.)

Plaintiff did not file a request for review by the Appeals Council of the ALJ's decision. (Joint Stip. at 4.) 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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