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Shalon E. Goodlow v. Michael J. Astrue

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA


August 9, 2011

SHALON E. GOODLOW, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Sheri Pym United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I.

INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY

On September 7, 2010, plaintiff Shalon E. Goodlow filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, seeking a review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"). Docket No. 3.

On March 10, 2011, defendant filed his answer, along with a certified copy of the administrative record. Docket Nos. 12, 13.

On April 15, 2011, this matter was transferred to the calender of the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Docket No. 23. Both plaintiff and defendant subsequently consented to proceed for all purposes before the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Docket Nos. 26, 27.

Pursuant to a September 7, 2010 case management order, the parties submitted a detailed, 17-page joint stipulation for decision on June 14, 2011. Docket No. 29. The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

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 ("ALJ") failed to make specific findings of the relation of plaintiff's residual functional capacity to the physical and mental demands of her past relevant work. Therefore, 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 43 years old on the date of her January 26, 2010 administrative hearing, has a high school education and vocational certification for computer technology. See Administrative Record ("AR") at 28, 32, 33, 98, 105, 123. Her past relevant work includes employment as a security guard. Id. at 35, 118, 147.

On June 17, 2008, plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging that she has been disabled since August 23, 2007 due to back, neck, and knee problems. See AR at 11, 56, 96-104, 105-07. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 52, 53, 54, 55, 56-60, 64-68, 69-70, 71-72.

On January 26, 2010, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. AR at 28-46, 50. The ALJ also heard testimony from Randi Hetrick, a vocational expert ("VE"). Id. at 46-49.

On February 12, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's request for benefits. AR at 11-17. 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 of disability. Id. at 13.

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of "cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease." AR at 13 (bold omitted).

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in the Social Security regulations. AR at*fn1 13.

The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and*fn2 determined that she can perform sedentary work with the following limitations: "lift/carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; stand/walk 2 to 4 hours in an 8 hour day, 20 minutes at a time; sit about 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, repositioning every 30 minutes; occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; never ladders/ropes or crawl; occasional handling and fingering with left upper extremity and frequent handling and fingering with right upper extremity; and avoid concentrated exposure to dangerous machinery and unprotected heights." AR at 14 (bold omitted).

The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a security guard (Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") No. 372.667-034). AR at 16. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not suffering from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 11, 17.

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. AR at 1-3, 4-6. 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). But if the court 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.

ISSUE PRESENTED

A single disputed issue is presented for decision here: whether the ALJ's determination at step four -- that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a security guard -- is consistent with plaintiff's RFC and supported by substantial evidence. Joint Stipulation ("JS") at 3-11, 11-14, 14-15.

V.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff argues that "the ALJ's finding[, at step four,] that [plaintiff] can return to her past relevant work as a security guard is without merit." See JS at 4. Specifically, plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's finding regarding her RFC (id.), but instead argues that her past relevant work -- as it is generally performed and as she performed it -- requires work-related activities precluded by her RFC. Id. at 7, 9, 15.

"At step four of the sequential analysis, the claimant has the burden to prove that he cannot perform his prior relevant work 'either as actually performed or as generally performed in the national economy.'" Carmickle v. Comm'r, 533 F.3d 1155, 1166 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). "Although the burden of proof lies with the claimant at step four, the ALJ still has a duty to make the requisite factual findings to support his conclusion." Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844 (9th Cir. 2001). The ALJ must make specific findings as to: (1) "the claimant's residual functional capacity"; (2) "the physical and mental demands of the past relevant work"; and (3) "the relation of the residual functional capacity to the past work." Id. at 845; Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 82-62. But the ALJ is not required to*fn3 make "explicit findings at step four regarding a claimant's past relevant work both as generally performed and as actually performed." Pinto, 249 F.3d at 845.

Here, the ALJ failed to make specific findings as to the relation of plaintiff's RFC to her past work. The ALJ's finding at step four -- that plaintiff is "able to perform [her past relevant work] as actually and generally performed (AR at 17) -- was terse, conclusory, and devoid of any explanation for his finding. See id. at 16-17; see also Carmickle, 533 F.3d at 1167 ("the ALJ always has a duty to make the requisite factual findings to support his conclusion at step four" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). Further, to the extent the ALJ did give any hint of the basis for his findings, they appear contradictory.

As noted above, in assessing plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform sedentary level work with various limitations. The ALJ then proceeded to find plaintiff "capable of performing past relevant work as a security guard (372.667-034) SVP 3, light," both "as actually and generally performed." AR at 16-17. The parties agree, and this court finds, that the DOT description of security guard work as generally performed is light work (JS at 5-6, 12), and defendant concedes that the ALJ's RFC assessment of plaintiff "would be inconsistent with the requirements of the [security guard] position as it is generally performed in the economy." Id. at 12. Yet the ALJ determined plaintiff capable of working as a security guard as "generally performed," and cited to the relevant DOT section, without including any findings or explanation for how he determined that a plaintiff he found limited to performing sedentary work was nonetheless capable of performing the light work generally required of a security guard.

Defendant argues that the record supports the ALJ's finding that plaintiff is capable of performing her past work as she actually performed it. This court disagrees. The ALJ made no specific findings regarding the physical and mental demands of plaintiff's past work as she actually performed it, nor did he make specific findings regarding the relation of plaintiff's RFC to her past work as she actually performed it. See AR at 16-17. The ALJ simply referenced the VE's testimony in a conclusory fashion to find plaintiff could perform this work. Id. at 17. Under these circumstances, "the court has no basis on which to review the agency's decision" that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work. Carmickle, 533 F.3d at 1167; see also Pinto, 249 F.3d at 847 ("Requiring the ALJ to make specific findings on the record at each phase of the step four analysis provides for meaningful judicial review." (citation omitted)). Accordingly, reversal and remand for further administrative proceedings is appropriate.

VI.

REMAND IS APPROPRIATE

The decision whether to remand for further proceedings or reverse and award benefits is within the discretion of the district court. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 603 (9th Cir. 1989). Where no useful purpose would be served by further proceedings, or where the record has been fully developed, it is appropriate to exercise this discretion to direct an immediate award of benefits. See Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595-96 (9th Cir. 2004); Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1179-80 (9th Cir. 2000) (decision whether to remand for further proceedings turns upon their likely utility). But where there are outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination can be made, and it is not clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find plaintiff disabled if all the evidence were properly evaluated, remand is appropriate. See Benecke, 379 F.3d at 595-96; Harman, 211 F.3d at 1179-80.

Here, as set out above, remand is appropriate because the ALJ erred in failing to make specific findings as to the relation of plaintiff's RFC to her past work, as generally or actually performed. In short, the record has not been fully developed. On remand, the ALJ shall reevaluate the physical and mental demands of plaintiff's past work -- as generally performed, as actually performed, or both -- and either find them consistent or inconsistent with plaintiff's RFC. In either case, the ALJ shall provide an explanation for this finding with references to the usual sources of evidence as to the physical and mental demands of plaintiff's past work. In addition, if necessary, the ALJ shall proceed to step five to determine if plaintiff can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

VII.

CONCLUSION IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED THAT

Judgment shall be entered REVERSINGthe decision of the Commissioner denying benefits, and REMANDING the matter to the Commissioner for further administrative action consistent with this decision.


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