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Margaret A. Downey v. Michael J. Astrue

November 22, 2011

MARGARET A. DOWNEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I.

INTRODUCTION

On March 21, 2011, plaintiff Margaret A. Downey filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, seeking a review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

Plaintiff presents two disputed issues for decision: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly considered the opinions of a treating physician and two consultative examiners; and (2) whether the ALJ properly considered plaintiff's credibility. Plaintiff's Notice of Motion and Motion for Summary Judgment or Remand ("Pl. Mem.") at 8-13.

Having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties's moving papers, the Administrative Record ("AR"), and the decision of the ALJ, the court concludes that, as detailed herein, the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of plaintiff's treating physician and two consultative examiners without providing specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence for doing so. The ALJ also inappropriately discounted plaintiff's credibility, as the reasons he gave for doing so were not clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the court remands this matter to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was forty-four years old on the date of her December 17, 2008, administrative hearing, is a high school graduate and has vocational training. See AR at 33-34. Her past relevant work includes employment as a massage therapist, network implementation coordinator, and administrative clerk. ARat 45, 97.

On September 17, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging a period of disability from April 29, 2005 through December 31, 2009, the date last insured, due to costochondritis, which causes pain in her chest, neck, back, and shoulder. AR at 18; Pl. Mem. at 1-2. Plaintiff developed costochondritis after falling at work. Pl. Mem. at 2. The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration, after which she filed a request for a hearing. AR at 58-62, 65-69, 71.

On December 17, 2008, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. AR at 27-53. The ALJ also heard testimony from Aida Worthington, a vocational expert. AR at 41-50. On July 9, 2009, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim for benefits. ARat 18-26.

Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of disability, April 29, 2005. AR at 20.*fn1

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe "combination of impairments": costochondritis, left shoulder impingement syndrome, left acromioclavicular arthritis, obesity, sleep apnea, asthma, and depression. AR at 20.

At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, whether individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). AR at 20-21.

The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and*fn2 determined that she had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations: "lifting and carry ten pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently; standing and/or walking for six hours of an eight hour workday; sitting for six hours of an eight hour workday; avoiding all exposure to moving

Although the ALJ's determinations are from the alleged date of disability machinery and unprotected heights and performing only occasional overhead work." AR at 21-22.

The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff was not capable of performing her past relevant work. AR at 25.

At step five, the ALJ determined that, based upon plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, plaintiff could perform "a significant number of jobs in the national economy," including telephone solicitor, addressor, and call out operator. Id. Consequently, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id.

Plaintiff filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council. AR at 1-3. 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) (as amended). 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 ...


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