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Brenda Lee Cagle v. Michael J. Astrue

March 7, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff, who is represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.*fn1 In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") in this case erred by failing to: (1) include in the formulation of plaintiff's residual functional capacity any restrictions that reflect plaintiff's functional limitations as to "persistence and pace" arising from plaintiff's mental impairment; (2) adopt the opinions of examining state agency physicians Patrick Wong, M.D., and Les Kalman, M.D., as to plaintiff's mental functioning despite giving "significant weight" to those opinions; and (3) provide specific and legitimate reasons for not crediting the medical opinion of Aziz Khambati, M.D. (See generally Pl.'s Memo. of P. & A. In Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (Pl.'s Memo.") at 1, Dkt. No. 14, Doc. No. 14-1.) Plaintiff asks the court to remand this matter to the agency so that these alleged errors may be addressed. The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 15.)

For the reasons stated below, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part, denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and remands this case. Specifically, the undersigned finds persuasive plaintiff's argument that the ALJ's residual functional capacity did not adequately reflect the ALJ's own findings regarding the material impact of plaintiff's mental impairment on her pace and endurance over the course of an eight-hour workday. Because such error warrants a remand, and the ALJ's review of that issue on remand will likely prompt additional analysis of the opinions of Drs. Wong and Kalman, the court does not address plaintiff's two remaining claims of error.


A. Procedural History

On August 21, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Income ("SSI") benefits that alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2006.*fn3 (Admin. Tr. ("AT") 176-83.) The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 112-13.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claim on December 21, 2009. (AT 70-92.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated February 26, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's application for benefits based on a finding that plaintiff could perform other work as a "dishwasher," "cleaner," or "linen room attendant," which are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the California economy.*fn4 (AT 68.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's multiple requests for review. (See AT 1-2.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required five-step evaluation and concluded that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since August 21, 2008, the date that plaintiff filed her application for benefits. (AT 60.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, obesity, and affective disorder." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in the applicable regulations. (AT 61-63.) Central to plaintiff's first assignment of error, however, the ALJ did find that in regards to plaintiff's mental impairment, plaintiff had "moderate difficulties" as to "concentration, persistence or pace." (AT 62.) The ALJ further found that "[t]he evidence suggests that the claimant's ability to maintain adequate pace and level of endurance over an eight-hour workday is likely to be affected by her mood swings and emotionality." (Id.)

Prior to reaching step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand and walk in combination for 6 hours out of an 8 hour day; and sit up to 6 hours out of an 8 hour day. The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and can occasionally climb stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl.

The claimant can work at jobs involving simple routine tasks with occasional public contact. Additionally, the claimant should avoid exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery in the work place. (AT 63.) In assessing plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ addressed plaintiff's testimony and found that plaintiff was not credible to the extent that plaintiff's testimony conflicted with the RFC. (See AT 63-65.) Plaintiff has not challenged that finding. The ALJ also addressed and gave "significant weight" to the opinions of Drs. Wong and Kalman in regards to plaintiff's mental functioning. (See AT 65, 67.) The ALJ addressed and gave "reduced weight" to the opinion of Dr. Khambati regarding plaintiff's physical impairments. (See AT 66-67.)

Having assessed plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was not capable of returning to her past work because plaintiff "has no past relevant work." (AT 67.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, the RFC, and the VE's testimony, plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AT 67-68.) Relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform work in the representative occupations of "dishwasher, ...

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