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Lendra Elizabeth Ann v. Michael J. Astrue

May 25, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jay C. Gandhi United States Magistrate Judge



On May 28, 2010, plaintiff Lendra Elizabeth Merker ("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"). [Docket No. 1.] On December 15, 2010, Defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record ("AR"). [Docket Nos. 10, 12.]

On February 18, 2011, the parties submitted a detailed, 39-page joint stipulation ("Joint Stip."). [Docket No. 13.]

In sum, having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties' joint stipulation and the administrative record, the Court concludes that, as detailed herein, the Administrate Law Judge 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.


Plaintiff, who was 59 years of age on the date of her administrative hearing, has completed two years of college. (See AR at 45, 58, 487.) Her past relevant work includes employment as a district manager of a sale and marketing department for a winery and as a sale person for a wine warehouse. (Id. at 75.)

Plaintiff filed for DIB on November 30, 2005, alleging that she has been disabled since August 27, 2000 because of injuries to and pain in her lower back, left foot, and right knee. (AR at 45, 51, 52, 66, 92.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied after which she filed a timely request for a hearing. (Id. at 34, 38-42, 43-44.)

On February 22, 2008, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ. (AR at 489-500.) The ALJ also heard testimony from Plaintiff's friend Karen Erwin. (Id. at 496-98.)

On November 5, 2008, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (AR at 21-28.) Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of disability. (Id. at 23.)

At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff "had the following severe impairments: depression, left foot pain possibly secondary to recurrent neuroma, and status post partial medial meniscectomy in 1998." (ARat 23.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that Plaintiff's impairment, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations.*fn1 (AR at 23.)

The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity*fn2 ("RFC") and determined that she was limited to performing light work. (AR at 24.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff was limited to "standing/walking for 4 hours and sitting for at least 6 hours in an 8 hour day[.]" (Id.) The ALJ also ascertained that Plaintiff was precluded "from climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds" and had a "mild limitation in the ability to balance and crawl, and moderate limitation in the ability to maintain concentration and attention for at least 2 hour increments and withstand the stress and pressures associated with an 8 hour workday and day to day work activity." (Id.)

The ALJ determined, at step four, that Plaintiff has the ability to perform her past relevant work. (AR at 27.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Act. (Id. at 21, 27-28.)

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. (AR at 6-8, 16.) The ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.


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 ...

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