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Belen Martinez v. Michael J. Astrue

May 25, 2011

BELEN MARTINEZ,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Carla M. Woehrle United States Magistrate Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

The parties have consented, under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge. Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. The court finds this matter should be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings consistent with this decision and order.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Belen Martinez was born on September 14, 1971, and was 37-years old at the time of her third administrative hearing, which is the subject of this order. [Administrative Record ("AR") 62.] She has a high school education, was trained as a teachers' assistant [AR 116], and has past relevant work experience as a health facility clerk, receptionist, and teacher aide. [AR 18, 131-36, 395.]

Plaintiff alleges disability on the basis of carpal tunnel syndrome, reflex sympathic dystrophy, osteoarthritis and bone spurs. [AR 110.]

II. PROCEEDINGS

This is plaintiff's third appeal in a series of denials of her request for DIB and SSI benefits.*fn1

In brief, the relevant procedural background is as follows. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI benefits in 2002, alleging disability since 1996. [AR 65-67, 364-65.] She requested a hearing and, in 2004, represented by the same law firm representing her today, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). [AR 377-95.] After that hearing, the Commissioner determined plaintiff was not disabled under the social security act. [See AR 13-19.] Plaintiff appealed the denial of benefits to this court and, on June 27, 2006, the matter was remanded for further administrative proceedings because the credibility evaluation was found to be inadequate.

On April 2, 2007, a second hearing was held before an ALJ at which plaintiff again appeared and testified [AR 379-84]; the Commissioner again denied plaintiff's request for benefits. [AR 389-396.] Plaintiff appealed the denial to this court and, on June 19, 2008, the matter was remanded for further proceedings because the assessment of plaintiff's allegations of depression was found to be inadequate.

Plaintiff's third hearing was held on February 20, 2009. [AR 691-705.] Plaintiff again appeared and testified, as did Joseph M. Mooney, a vocational expert ("VE"). [See Id.] On June 17, 2009, the ALJ issued a written decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denying benefits. [AR 548-556.]

Plaintiff lodged the complaint in this matter on September 4, 2009; it was filed on September 11, 2009. On March 17, 2010, defendant filed an answer and the certified administrative record. On May 19, 2010, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("JS"). This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. 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 (or ALJ's) findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. However, if the court determines that a finding is based on legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the finding and set aside the decision to deny benefits. See Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1035 (9th Cir. 2001); Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1147 (9th Cir. 2001); Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Moncada v. Chater, 60 F.3d 521, 523 (9th Cir. 1995)(per curiam).

Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla," but "less than a preponderance." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. It is "relevant evidence which a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. To determine whether substantial evidence supports a finding, a 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." Id. If the evidence reasonably supports either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-721; see also Osenbrock, 240 F.3d at 1162.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP EVALUATION

To be eligible for disability benefits a claimant must demonstrate a medically determinable impairment which prevents the claimant from engaging in substantial gainful activity and which is expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721; 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

Disability claims are evaluated using a five-step test:

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., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 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. ...


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