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Karen Logan v. Michael J. Astrue

March 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Karen Logan seeks judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff was born on July 2, 1957. She completed two years of college and has work experience as a phone company customer service agent and a banking operational officer. (Administrative Record ("AR") 98, 103, 108.) Plaintiff filed her application for SSDI benefits on November 29, 2007, alleging disability beginning April 11, 2005, due to cervical disc impairment and depression. (AR 93, 98.) Her application was denied initially on April 28, 2008, and upon reconsideration on August 27, 2008. (AR 43-47, 51-55.) An administrative hearing was held on August 4, 2009, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") F. Keith Varni. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified on her own behalf. (AR 21-38.)

ALJ Varni issued an unfavorable decision on October 30, 2009. (AR 9-18.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of cervical degenerative disc disease status post fusion. (Id.) The ALJ determined that this severe impairment did not meet the requirements of a listed impairment found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR 13.)

The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work "except she is limited in pushing and pulling with the lower extremities; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; is limited in reaching in all directions; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards (machinery, heights, etc.)." (AR 13.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as a customer service representative and banking operational officer, and was therefore not entitled to disability benefits. (AR 17.)

The Appeals Council denied review on June 30, 2010, and Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review. On March 10, 2011, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues, including the following claims of error: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians; (2) the ALJ failed to provide a complete and proper assessment of Plaintiff's RFC; (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider the actual mental and physical demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work; and (4) the ALJ did not make proper credibility findings. (Joint Stip. 2-3.) Plaintiff asks the Court to reverse and order an award of benefits, or in the alternative, remand for further administrative proceedings. (Joint Stip. 20.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. 20-21.)

After reviewing the parties' respective contentions and the record as a whole, the Court finds Plaintiff's contention regarding the ALJ's failure to make a proper credibility determination to be meritorious and remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.*fn1

II. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094 (9th Cir. 1999); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007).

Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)(citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, the reviewing 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." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. The ALJ Improperly Discredited Plaintiff's Subjective Symptom Testimony

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting her subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. 14.) Plaintiff testified to the following at the administrative hearing: She stopped working because she was having pain in her neck, head, back, arms, shoulders and hands due to cervical disc fusion surgery she had in 2003. (AR 24.) She decided not to have additional surgery. (Id.) She receives epidural injections once a month at a pain management clinic, which help relieve her pain for approximately two weeks, and she also takes pain medication. (AR 24-26, 32-33.) She cannot return to her past job, which primarily involved working at a computer station, because she would not be able to "get up and leave and rest and walk or stand when [she] needs to do it." (AR 27-28.) While working, her pain would increase in intensity during the course of a work week. (AR 28.) Her daily pain level ranges from a six or seven on a scale of one to ten. (AR 31.) In addition, she is generally able to sit or stand for approximately one hour before she must change positions. (AR 31-32.)

To determine whether a claimant's testimony about subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Lingenfelter 504 F.3d at 1035-36). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged pain or other symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036. "[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain." Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc). To the extent that an individual's claims of functional limitations and restrictions due to alleged pain is ...

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