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Anderson v. Astrue

November 10, 2010

PAULA ANDERSON, 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 27, 2009, plaintiff Paula Anderson ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant" or "Commissioner"), seeking review of a denial of supplemental security income benefits ("SSI") and disabled widow's benefits. [Docket No. 3.]

On March 5, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 11, 12, 13.]

Pursuant to a October 28, 2009 order regarding further proceedings, Plaintiff submitted a brief in support of her complaint ("Pl.'s Br.") on April 7, 2010. [Docket No. 14.] On May 6, 2010, Defendant submitted his opposition brief ("Def's. Br."). [Docket No. 18.]

On April 14, 2010, this matter was transferred to the calendar of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. [Docket No. 15.] 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. 16, 19.]

Plaintiff did not file a reply brief. 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 evaluation of the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physicians. It is well established that the ALJ may discount the opinion of treating physicians, but he must articulate specific and legitimate reasons in so doing. Those requisite reasons are absent here. 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 50 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has completed the eleventh grade. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 82, 367, 370.) Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 24, 36.)

Plaintiff filed for SSI on March 26, 2008, alleging that she has been disabled since January 1, 2007 due to tremors, neck pain, a knee and leg impairment, and depression. (See AR at 69, 75, 82-85.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 60, 62-66, 69-73, 75-79.) On or about the time she filed her request for a hearing, Plaintiff also filed a claim for disabled widow's benefits. (See id. at 18; Def.'s Br. at 2.)

On May 14, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 367-76.)

On August 3, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for SSI benefits. (AR at 30-37.) Two days later, on August 5, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for disabled widow's benefits. (Id. at 18-26.) The relevant findings with respect to the five-step sequential evaluation process -- which is discussed below -- in both decisions are identical. (Compare AR at 18-26 with id. at 30-37.)

Applying the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her SSI application date. (AR at 20, 32.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "degenerative joint disease, tremors, [and] left hip pain." (ARat 20, 32 (emphasis 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 21, 33.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional Capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that she can "perform the full range of medium work[,]" but is limited to "occasional[] walk[ing] on uneven terrain and climb[ing] ladders." (AR at 22, 33 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (AR at 24, 36.)

At step five, based on Plaintiff's vocational factors and RFC, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform[.]" (AR at 25, 36 (emphasis omitted).) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 19, 25, 30, 37.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decisions, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 5-7, 9.) The ALJ's decisions stand as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS

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 ...


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