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Javier Mancilla Luna v. Michael J. Astrue

March 13, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Marc L. Goldman United States Magistrate Judge


Plaintiff Javier Mancilla Luna seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his application for Social Security Disability Insurance ("DIB") benefits. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born on October 21, 1965. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 20, 113.) He completed twelve years of education in Mexico and has no other educational or vocational training. (AR at 20.) Plaintiff has work experience performing door and cabinet installation and R.V. assembly. (AR at 19.)

Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on March 7, 2008, alleging that he had been disabled since November 30, 2006, due to a spinal injury. (AR at 124.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially on May 2, 2008, and upon reconsideration on September 3, 2008. (AR at 40-44, 48-52.) An administrative hearing was held on January 28, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Jesse J. Pease at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Plaintiff testified at the hearing, as did a vocational expert. (AR 465-484.)

On March 11, 2010, ALJ Pease denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (AR at 7-21.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period at issue. (AR at 15.) The ALJ further found that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of status-post posterolateral fusion L4 to the sacrum with pedicle screws bilaterally at L4, L5 and S1 and repeat decompression laminotomy at L4-L5 bilaterally. (Id.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet, or were not medically equal to, one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) with the following exceptions: the claimant can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; he can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; he must be allowed to change positions every 30 minutes for up to 10 minutes; he can perform occasional postural activities; and he understands and speaks very little English. (Id.)

The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. (AR at 19.) However, the ALJ found that there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as garment sorter, hand packager, and bench assembly. (AR at 20-21.) The ALJ concluded, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

On March 25, 2011, the Appeals Council denied review (AR at 1-3) and Plaintiff timely commenced this action for judicial review. On March 5, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that (1) the ALJ's residual functional capacity assessment is not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the ALJ failed to make a proper credibility determination. (Joint Stip. at 3.) Plaintiff seeks remand for a new administrative hearing. (Joint Stip. at 17.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. at 18.)

II. 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 decision must be upheld unless "the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1990); Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence means such evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1066 (9th Cir. 2006). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). To determine whether substantial evidence supports a 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 Commissioner's conclusion." Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1996). "If the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882.

III. Discussion

A. The ALJ Improperly Discredited Plaintiff's Subjective Symptom Testimony

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly discredited his subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 11.) To determine whether a claimant's testimony about subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must engage in a two-step analysis. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009) (citing Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035-36 (9th Cir. 2007)). First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the alleged pain or other symptoms. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036. "[O]nce the claimant produces objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment, an adjudicator may not reject a claimant's subjective complaints based solely on a lack of objective medical evidence to fully corroborate the alleged severity of pain."

Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 345 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc). To the extent that an individual's claims of functional limitations and restrictions due to alleged pain is reasonably consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence in the case, the claimant's allegations will be credited. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL ...

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