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Rosie Grijalva Juarez v. Michael J. Astrue

September 18, 2012

ROSIE GRIJALVA JUAREZ, 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 seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which denied, for lack of disability, plaintiff's applications for Social Security Disability ("SSD") benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.*fn1 (Dkt. No. 12.) In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff alleges that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by (1) failing to find that plaintiff's degenerative disc disease was a severe impairment at step two of the sequential evaluation process; (2) failing to properly assess the impact of plaintiff's obesity; (3) failing to credit the opinion of plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Powell without a legitimate basis for so doing; (4) failing to credit plaintiff's and plaintiff's daughter's testimony regarding the nature and extent of plaintiff's functional limitations; and (5) failing to credit the vocational expert ("VE") testimony in response to the hypothetical the plaintiff asserts most accurately reflects her residual functional capacity ("RFC"). (("Pl.'s Memo.") Dkt. No. 19.)

After careful consideration of the entire record and the arguments submitted by the parties, for the reasons that follow, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part, denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and remands this case for further proceedings. Specifically, the court concludes that, in light of new radiological evidence considered by the Appeals Council and therefore a part of the record on review, the ALJ's reasons for rejecting treating physician Dr. Powell's opinion are not supported by the record as a whole. As a result, the ALJ's determination at step two as to whether plaintiff's degenerative disc disease is a severe impairment and the assessment of plaintiff's RFC are potentially premised on an improper weighting of the medical opinions in the record. Accordingly, the court remands this matter for further proceedings. The court does, however, find that the ALJ properly assessed the evidence of plaintiff's obesity and any functional limitations due to her obesity. The court does not reach plaintiff's additional assignments of error because the aforementioned error likely impacted the manner in which the ALJ evaluated plaintiff's credibility and the third-party statements in the record. The ALJ should consider plaintiff's remaining allegations of error on remand.

I. BACKGROUND*fn2

A. Procedural Background

Plaintiff applied for SSD and SSI benefits on September 16, 2008, alleging disability commencing on August 1, 2008 (See Administrative Transcript ("AT") 53, 54, 137.)

The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. (AT 62, 70.) Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an ALJ (AT 84), and a hearing was conducted regarding plaintiff's claim on January 5, 2010. (AT 18-41.) Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel at the hearing, appeared and testified at the hearing. (Id.) A vocational expert also testified at the hearing. (Id.)

In a decision dated June 10, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's application. (AT 8-17.) As discussed below, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a hospital admitting clerk and, alternatively, perform jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy.*fn3 (AT 15-17.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. (AT 1-4.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this action.

B. Summary of the ALJ's Findings

The ALJ conducted the required five-step, sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2008, the alleged onset date. (AT 11.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the severe impairments of status post bilateral knee replacements, fibromyalgia, and obesity. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairment listed in the applicable regulations. (Id.)

The ALJ next assessed plaintiff's RFC as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can sit, stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks, can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, can never crawl, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel or crouch, and would have to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and vibration.

(AT 11.) In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ discounted, as not fully credible, plaintiff's statements and the statements of plaintiff's daughter regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of plaintiff's symptoms or impairments. (AT 13-15.)

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff's RFC did not preclude plaintiff from performing her past relevant work as a hospital admitting clerk. (AT 16.) Alternatively, the ALJ found, considering the plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the ...


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