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Lucila Bernal v. Michael J. Astrue

May 9, 2011

LUCILA BERNAL, 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 June 3, 2010, plaintiff Lucila Bernal ("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 ("SSI"). [Docket No. 3.]

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

On April 12, 2011, the parities submitted a detailed, 40-page joint stipulation ("Joint Stip."). [Docket No. 18.]

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record ("AR"), the Court concludes that, as detailed herein, the Administrate Law Judge ("ALJ") inappropriately discounted Plaintiff's subjective complaints about the severity of pain and her limitations. 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 47 years old on the date of her administrative hearing, does not speak or write English, completed third grade as her highest level of education, and has no special job training. (See AR at 35, 38, 94, 100.)

On September 11, 2006, Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI, alleging that she has been disabled since August 1, 2005 due to diabetes, arthritis, weakness in her shoulder, severe dysfunction of right dominant upper extremity, inability to stay on her feet, and difficulty in sustaining and changing postural positions. (See AR at 95, 130.)

On March 4, 2008, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (See AR at 37-44.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Steven Berry, a vocational expert ("VE"). (Id. at 44-45.)

On March 26, 2008, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 13-18.) 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 her alleged onset date. (Id. at 15.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "status post right shoulder subacromial decompression, degenerative cervical and lumbar disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes mellitus, a history of cardiac catheterization, and morbid obesity." (AR at 15.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence did not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equaled 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 she can perform light work with limitations. (AR at 16.) Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff cannot do more than occasional overhead reaching with "her bilateral upper extremities." (Id.)

The ALJ found, at step four, that Plaintiff has the ability to perform her past relevant work as a machine operator and a machine operator/inspector. (AR at 18.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 13, 18.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 1-3, 68.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The findings and decision of the Social Security Administration must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001, as amended Dec. 21, 2001). If the court, however, determines that the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision to deny benefits. Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001).

"Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035. Substantial evidence is such "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. To determine whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's 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 ALJ's conclusion." Mayes, 276 F.3d at 459. The ALJ's decision "'cannot be affirmed simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Aukland, 257 F.3d at 1035 (quoting Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1243 (9th Cir. 1998)). If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's decision, the reviewing court "'may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.'" Id. (quoting Matney ex rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992)).

IV. ISSUES PRESENTED

Two issues are presented here:

1. whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence, (see Joint ...


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