The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge
The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of disability benefits. As discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.
Plaintiff Shirley L. Lewis was born on May 19, 1957, and was fifty-two years old at the time of her first administrative hearing. [AR 16.] She has completed three years of college and has past relevant work experience as an eligibility technician, fine jewelry sales specialist, and flight attendant. [AR 57, 16.] Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks, severe hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome, spastic colon, a tear in the esophagus, asthma, and high blood pressure. [AR 181.]
II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT
Plaintiff's complaint was filed on January 22, 2010. On July 21, 2010, Defendant filed an Answer and Plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On October 8, 2010, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, the positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.
III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS
Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning April 30, 2001. [AR 11.] After the claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Two hearings were held on April 22, 2009, and June 12, 2009, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [Id.] Plaintiff was represented by counsel at both hearings. [Id.] Testimony was taken from Plaintiff, medical expert Samuel Landau, and vocational expert Sandra M. Fioretti. [Id.] The ALJ denied benefits in a decision issued on September 30, 2009. [AR 11-21.] When the Appeals Council denied review on November 24, 2009, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [AR 1.]
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam). "Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a court must review the administrative record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.
A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION FOR SUBSTANCE ABUSE
To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 ...