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Bria Xue Vang v. Michael J. Astrue

March 28, 2012

BRIA XUE VANG, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

ORDER

Plaintiff, who is represented by counsel, seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and Supplemental Security Income benefits under Title XVI of the Act.*fn1 In his motion for summary judgment, plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge ("ALJ") in this case erred by: (1) finding that plaintiff's medically determinable impairment of post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") was not a "severe" mental impairment within the meaning of the Act; (2) rejecting the uncontradicted medical opinion of examining psychiatrist Les Kalman, M.D., Psy. D. ("Dr. Kalman") regarding the functional limitations that arose from plaintiff's mental impairments, including PTSD and depression, without providing clear and convincing reasons for doing so; (3) formulating a residual functional capacity for plaintiff that did not account for plaintiff's mental functional limitations, an argument contingent on the success of the first two arguments; (4) not applying Rule 202.02 of the Medical-Vocational Guideline, see 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, to find plaintiff disabled; (5) discounting plaintiff's credibility without providing clear and convincing reasons for doing so; and (6) failing to provide sufficient reasons for rejecting third-party lay witness statements about plaintiff's limitations provided by plaintiff's family members. (See generally Pl.'s Memo. of P. & A. In Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. at 1, Dkt. No. 13.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 14.)

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 matter for further proceedings. Specifically, the court concludes that the ALJ's finding at step two of the five-step sequential analysis that plaintiff's PTSD was not a "severe" impairment is not supported by substantial evidence. Relatedly, the ALJ did not provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Dr. Kalman's examining opinion that found functional limitations arising from plaintiff's PTSD and depression. As a result of these errors, the residual functional capacity assessed by the ALJ is materially deficient. Accordingly, the court remands this matter for further proceedings. The court does not reach plaintiff's additional assignments of error because the error at step two infected the formulation of plaintiff's residual functional capacity and likely impacted the manner in which the ALJ evaluated plaintiff's credibility and the third-party statements in the record. The ALJ should reconsider plaintiff's remaining allegations of error on remand.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

A. Procedural History

On January 4, 2008, plaintiff protectively filed an application for Social Security Income benefits, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2003. (Admin. Tr. ("AT") 109.) Plaintiff alleged conditions of asthma, breathing problems, heart problems, gout, and arthritis. (See id.; see also AT 129.) On January 17, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2005. (AT 113.) Plaintiff subsequently amended his onset date to October 31, 2007. (AT 117.)

The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 42-43, 47-48.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claim on March 17, 2010. (AT 28-41, 62-65.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified through an interpreter because of his limited facility with the English language. It appears that plaintiff testified in a Hmong dialect. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated April 8, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's applications for benefits on the basis of a finding at step four of the five-step sequential analysis that plaintiff was capable of returning to his past work as a fast food worker and janitor.*fn3 (AT 22.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (See AT 1-3.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required sequential 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 activity since October 31, 2007, the amended alleged disability onset date. (AT 19.)

At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "gout, chronic heart failure, asthma, and arthritis." (AT 19.) However, the ALJ also concluded at step two of the analysis that plaintiff's "medically determinable mental impairment of [PTSD] does not cause more than minimal limitation in the claimant's ability to perform basic mental work activities and is therefore nonsevere." (Id.) In finding that plaintiff's PTSD was not severe, the ALJ gave "little weight" to, and essentially rejected outright, Dr. Kalman's examining psychiatrist opinion that identified mental limitations caused by plaintiff's PTSD and depression. (Id.; see also AT 342-50.)

At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments, whether alone or in combination, did not meet or medically equal any impairment listed in the applicable regulations. (AT 20.) The ALJ further determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light exertional work, with some functional exceptions. (Id.) Specifically, the ALJ found:

[The claimant] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can kneel, crouch, or crawl occasionally; and must avoid concentrated exposure to heights, moving machinery, dust, fumes, and smoke.

(Id.)*fn4 This RFC reflected no functional limitations as a result of plaintiff's alleged mental impairments. In making this finding, the ALJ discounted the credibility of plaintiff's statements, finding that plaintiff's "statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with finding above [RFC] ...


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