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Margaret Wurzinger, On Behalf of Richard Farley, Deceased v. Michael J. Astrue

March 30, 2011

MARGARET WURZINGER, ON BEHALF OF RICHARD FARLEY, DECEASED, 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 December 11, 2009, plaintiff Margaret Wurzinger, on behalf of her deceased brother Richard Farley, ("Plaintiff") filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue ("Defendant"), the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, seeking review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

On June 14, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. [Docket Nos. 17, 18, 19.]

In sum, having studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in failing to discuss the statements of a lay witness. The ALJ's lack of analysis cannot be reconciled with Ninth Circuit precedent explaining that lay witness testimony is competent evidence and cannot be disregarded without comment. Accordingly, the Court 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 57 years old on the date of his alleged onset date, has a high school equivalent education. (See Administrative Record ("AR") at 12, 18, 65, 75.)

On January 18, 2007, Plaintiff filed for DIB. (AR at 12, 22, 65.) On March 2, 2007, Plaintiff filed for SSI. (Id. at 12.) In both applications, Plaintiff alleged that he has been disabled since June 1, 2006 due to back problems, a right shoulder injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, heart problems, shortness of breath, and an unspecified mood disorder. (See id. at 12, 33, 69; Joint Stip. at 2.)

On November 19, 2008, Plaintiff was admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center where he died on November 23, 2008 from "[c]ardiac arrest secondary to septic shock with pneumonia and lung cancer." (AR at 249.) On or about December 23, 2008, a Notice Regarding Substitution of Party Upon Death of Claimant was filed by Plaintiff's sister Margaret Wurzinger. (Id. at 50-51.)

On March 3, 2009, Margaret Wurzinger, represented by counsel, appeared on Plaintiff's behalf and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (See AR at 290-300.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Corinne Porter, a vocational expert ("VE"), and Samuel Landau, M.D., a medical expert ("ME"). (Id.; see also id. at 12, 53-54, 56-57.)

On July 20, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 12-20.) 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 alleged onset date. (Id. at 14.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "ischemic heart disease, degenerative joint disease in back and in the left shoulder." (AR at 14 (emphasis omitted).)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.*fn1 (AR at 15.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that he can perform medium work. (AR at 15.) Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could: lift and carry twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally, stand and walk six hours of an eight-hour workday and sit six hours of an eight-hour workday. [Plaintiff] could climb stairs, but he could not climb ladders, work at heights, or balance. [Plaintiff] could stoop and bend occasionally. [Plaintiff] could occasionally work above shoulder ...


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