This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, defendant's cross-motion is denied, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this order.
On May 11, 2005, plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Act, alleging disability beginning on June 29, 2003 due to her back condition. (Transcript (Tr.) at 145-60.) Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on October 7, 2005, and upon reconsideration on April 20, 2006. (Tr. at 91, 114-27.) Pursuant to plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on September 19, 2007. (Tr. at 111, 291-311.) Plaintiff was represented by an attorney and testified at the hearing, as did two medical experts. (Tr. at 291-92.) In a decision dated November 21, 2007, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. at 91-100.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2007. (Exhibit D - DIB Insured Status Report)
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 29, 2003, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b), 404.1571 et seq., 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.). (Exhibit D -DIB Insured Status Report)
3. The claimant has the following medically determinable impairments: history of lumbar laminotomy and foraminotomy with diskectomy, bronchitis/sinusitis, bereavement and adjustment disorder with depressed mood (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that has significantly limited (or is expected to significantly limit) the ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months; therefore the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments (20 CFR 404.1521and 416.921).
5. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 29, 2003 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). (Tr. at 8-18.)
On August 13, 2008, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 80-87.) On September 16, 2008, plaintiff appointed new counsel, who sought and received various extensions of time and was granted leave to submit more information and evidence. (Tr. at 79, 8-78.) On October 5, 2009, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for reopening of the appeal but granted plaintiff additional time to file a civil action. (Tr. at 5-6.)
Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing a complaint in this action on November 3, 2009.
The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:
Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. If not, proceed to step two.
Step two: Does the claimant have a "severe" impairment? If so, proceed to step three. If not, then a finding of not disabled is appropriate.
Step three: Does the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1? If so, the claimant is automatically determined disabled. If not, proceed to step four.
Step four: Is the claimant capable of performing his past work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five.
Step five: Does the claimant have the residual functional capacity to perform any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. ...