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Christopher Dustin v. Michael J. Astrue

March 10, 2011

CHRISTOPHER DUSTIN, 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 September 28, 2009, plaintiff Christopher Dustin ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant"), the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, seeking review of a denial of supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

On March 30, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 12, 13, 14.]

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, 18.]

Pursuant to an October 5, 2009 case management order, the parties submitted a detailed, 31-page joint stipulation for decision on July 6, 2010. [Docket No. 22.]

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes that, as detailed below, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") failed to fully and fairly develop the record under the circumstances presented here. As the Ninth Circuit teaches, the ALJ has a special duty to ensure that the claimant's interests are considered, particularly where the claimant may have cognitive deficits. 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 33 years old on the date of his administrative hearing, has a high school education. (See Administrative Record ("AR") at 19, 23, 81, 98.) Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (Id. at 17.)

On July 19, 2006, Plaintiff filed for SSI, alleging that he has been disabled since May 30, 2006 due to "brain bleed" and "brain damage." (See AR at 44, 49, 81-86.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which he filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 42, 43, 44-47, 49-53, 54.)

On December 9, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (See AR at 19, 21-41.)

On March 19, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR 12-18.) Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his SSI application date. (Id. at 14.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "cerebrovascular accident . . . , organic mental disorder and substance abuse addiction." (AR at 14 (emphasis omitted).)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.1/ (AR at 14.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity2/ ("RFC") and determined that he can perform "a full range of medium work." (AR at 14.)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (AR at 17.)

At step five, based on Plaintiff's RFC and the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("grids"), see 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2, the ALJ found that "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform." (AR at 17-18 (emphasis omitted).) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 12, 18.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 6.) The ALJ's decision stands as ...


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