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Katherine A. Swanson v. Michael J. Astrue

September 29, 2011

KATHERINE A. SWANSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



ORDER

This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, defendant's cross-motion is denied, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On April 18, 2006, plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging disability beginning on December 1, 2004, due to fibromyalgia and high blood pressure. (Transcript (Tr.) at 95-101, 108.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially on October 6, 2006, and upon reconsideration on February 6, 2007. (Tr. at 67-69, 73-78.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on February 6, 2008. (Tr. at 33-66, 80.) Plaintiff was represented at the hearing by a non-attorney representative. (Tr. at 33, 70-71.) Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing, as did a vocational expert. (Tr. at 38-58, 58-65.) In a partially favorable decision issued on April 18, 2008, the ALJ found plaintiff disabled beginning July 22, 2007, but not prior to that date. (Tr. at 7-9, 21-22.) The ALJ entered the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2004, the alleged onset date (416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).

2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; obesity; osteoarthritis; sclerosis involving the right SI joint, possibly indicating a sacroilitis [sic]; a pain disorder with physical and psychological features (20 CFR 416.920(c)).

3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).

4. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform the full range of sedentary work on a sustained basis as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a). Nonexertionally, the claimant is limited to the performance of simple, repetitive tasks.

5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).

6. The claimant was 48 years old on the date the application was filed. This is defined in the regulations as a younger individual age 45-49. On July 22, 2007, the claimant attained 50 years of age and her age category changed to an individual closely approaching advanced age (20 CFR 416.963).

7. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).

8. Prior to July 22, 2007, transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because applying the Medical-Vocational Rules directly supports a finding of "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills. Beginning on July 22, 2007, the claimant does not have transferable skills to perform other work within her physical and mental residual functional capacity. (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).

9. Prior to July 22, 2007, the date the claimant's age category changed, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant could have performed (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).

10. Beginning on July 22, 2007, the date the claimant's age category changed, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are not a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant could perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).

11. The claimant was not disabled prior to July 22, 2007, but became disabled on that date and has continued to be disabled through the date of this decision (20 CFR 416.920(g)). (Tr. at 15-22.)

On February 26, 2010, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 1-3, 4-5.) Plaintiff then sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on April 26, 2010.

LEGAL STANDARD

The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).

A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).

In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:

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 ...


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