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November 22, 2010


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



On August 14, 2009, plaintiff Cindy Wilton ("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 an application for supplemental security income ("SSI"). [Docket No. 4.]

On March 11, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 15, 16, 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. 20, 23.]

On May 14, 2010, the parties submitted a detailed, 57-page joint stipulation for the resolution of issues presented in this case. [Docket No. 22.] 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") inappropriately discounted Plaintiff's subjective complaints with respect to her mental impairments and thus remands this matter to the Commissioner in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.


Plaintiff, who was 42 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has a high school education. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 25, 93, 111.) Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 22.)

Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI on January 3, 2007, alleging that she has been disabled since December 31, 2004 due to bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and carpal tunnel syndrome. (See AR at 60, 66, 93, 100.) Plaintiff subsequently amended her alleged onset date to January 3, 2007, the protective filing date of her SSI application. (Id. at 16, 27.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 57, 58, 59-64, 66-70.)

On April 15, 2009, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 25, 28-46.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Sharon Spaventa, a vocational expert ("VE"), and Leanna Kennedy, Plaintiff's aunt ("Ms. Kennedy"). (Id. at 46-52, 52-56.)

On May 4, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 16- 23.) 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 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of substance induced mood disorder, depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, polysubstance dependence in remission, and personality disorder, not otherwise specified. (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 18.)

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: restriction to simple, repetitive tasks not requiring a fast paced high production quota and not requiring interaction with the general public." (AR at 19 (emphasis omitted).)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (AR at 22.)

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 "agricultural packer" and "laundry worker." (AR at 22 (emphasis omitted).) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 16, 23.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 9.) 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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