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Robert Bennett v. Michael J. Astrue

August 8, 2011

ROBERT BENNETT,
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 Commissioner's denial of his consolidated applications for Supplemental Security Income. As discussed below, the court finds that the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this matter remanded for further proceedings.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Robert Levy Bennett*fn1 was born on September 30, 1964, and was forty-five years old at the time of the supplemental administrative hearing at issue here. [Administrative Record "AR" 841.] He has a limited education, was found to be able to communicate in English, and has past relevant work as a polishing machine operator. [AR 43, 655.] Plaintiff claims disability on the basis of back, neck, and left knee impairments, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and mental problems. [See AR 642.]

II. PROCEEDINGS IN THIS COURT

Plaintiff filed the complaint in this matter on October 18, 2010. On May 19, 2011, Defendant filed an answer and Plaintiff's Administrative Record ("AR"). On July 25, 2011, the parties filed their Joint Stipulation ("JS") identifying matters not in dispute, issues in dispute, positions of the parties, and the relief sought by each party. This matter has been taken under submission without oral argument.

III. PRIOR ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff initially applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on August 14, 2001, alleging disability since July 4, 1998. After a hearing was held and Plaintiff's application was denied on January 26, 2004, [see AR 42-48, 608-34], Plaintiff sought review in this court.*fn2 While that initial appeal was pending, Plaintiff submitted additional material to the Appeals Council and filed another application for SSI benefits and an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB").

This court then approved a stipulation of voluntary remand and remanded the matter for further proceedings. [AR 667-68.] The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to associate all outstanding applications and to issue a decision on the consolidated claims. A supplemental hearing was held on March 30, 2010, at which Plaintiff appeared with counsel and testified. [AR 1063-96.] The ALJ also received testimony from vocational expert ("VE") Jeanine Metaldi. [AR 1088-96.]

The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on May 5, 2010. [AR 640-656.] When the Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction, the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [See AR 635A-B.] This action followed.

IV. 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 can reasonably support 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.

V. DISCUSSION

A. THE FIVE-STEP ...


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