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Sandra Feltis v. Michael J. Astrue

July 5, 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 and consequent hypothetical to the vocational expert any restrictions that reflect plaintiff's functional limitations as to an "ability to deal with changes in a routine work setting" and "persistence and pace" arising from plaintiff's mental impairment; (2) address and provide any reason for rejecting the more severe mental limitations assessed in May 4, 2009 County mental heath treatment notes and the assessment by Dr. Bailey, the state agency physician; (3) properly assess the impact of plaintiff's obesity pursuant to SSR 02-01p; (4) provide legitimate and convincing reasons for rejecting plaintiff's testimony as to the degree of her symptoms; and (5) provide any reasons for rejecting the third party lay statements provided by plaintiff's daughter. (See generally Pl.'s Memo. of P. & A. In Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Memo.") at 1, Dkt. No. 18.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 25.)

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 and hypothetical to the vocational expert did not adequately reflect the ALJ's stated acceptance of consultative examiner Dr. Owens' findings regarding the material impact of plaintiff's mental impairment on her pace, endurance, and ability to deal with changes in a routine work setting. However, the court rejects plaintiff's claim that the ALJ failed to assess properly the impact of plaintiff's obesity.


A. Procedural History

On September 4, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Income ("SSI") benefits that alleged a disability onset date of July 31, 2007. (Admin. Tr. ("AT") 109-15.) The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 72-87.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ, and the ALJ conducted a hearing regarding plaintiff's claim on March 15, 2010. (AT 21-66.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing and testified. A vocational expert also testified at the hearing.

In a written decision dated July 22, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's application for benefits based on a finding that plaintiff could perform other work as an "office helper," "hand packager," or "shipping and receiving clerk," which are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the California economy.*fn3 (AT 5-20.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-3.) 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 September 4, 2008, the date that plaintiff filed her application for benefits. (AT 10.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the following "severe" impairments: "major depressive disorder, migraine headaches, lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease and obesity." (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 10-11.)

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 perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except frequently climbing ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel crouch or crawl and may occasionally climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant may occasionally reach over shoulder height. She is capable of simple repetitive tasks with occasional public contact and frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors.

(AT 11.) 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. (AT 12-13.) The ALJ further found, after summarizing some of the treatment evidence, that, while plaintiff's "subject complaints and allegations regarding her functional limitations are partially credible . . . the medical evidence does not support the level of severity the claimant alleges." (AT 14.) The ALJ justified this credibility finding by stating "[t]he medical evidence shows that the claimant has migraines only about once a year." (Id.) The ALJ also addressed and gave "substantial weight" to the opinion of consultative examiner Dr. Owens in regards to plaintiff's mental functioning. (AT 14.) The ALJ noted that the State agency assessed plaintiff as having a "marked limitation in her ability to interact with the general public", but the ALJ stated that the State's finding was "not consistent with the fact that the claimant is able to go out in public and she testified that she leaves the house twice a week." (AT 14.) The ALJ did not state what weight, if any, she gave to the other findings in the State agency report (AT 358-59), some of which were more restrictive that Dr. Owens' findings, did not include any reference to the May 4, 2009 County mental health assessment that detailed serious mental health symptoms (AT 471-72), and did not state whether she found credible the Third Party Function Report that plaintiff's daughter submitted (AT 125-32). (See AT 12-14.)

Having assessed plaintiff's RFC, at step four the ALJ found that plaintiff was not capable of returning to her past work as a cashier, cashier checker and construction janitorial worker. (AT 15.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, the RFC, and the vocational expert's testimony, plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (AT 15-16.) Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform work in the representative occupations of "office helper," "hand ...

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