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Adrienne L. Dixon v. Michael J. Astrue

October 19, 2012

ADRIENNE L. DIXON,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,
DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Adrienne Dixon seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits. For the reasons stated below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

Plaintiff was born on January 14, 1973, and was 36 years old at the time she filed her application for benefits. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 179.) She has a high school education and has relevant work experience as a special education assistant, customer service representative and telemarketer. (AR at 185, 189.) Plaintiff filed her benefits applications on September 21, 2009, alleging disability beginning December 20, 2006, due to left ankle pain, hypertension and diabetes. (AR at 102, 103.)

Plaintiff's applications were denied initially on December 17, 2009, and upon reconsideration on February 12, 2010. (AR at 105-109, 114-118.) An administrative hearing was held on October 25, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Ariel L. Sotolongo. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, as did a medical expert and a vocational expert. (AR at 54-96.) On November 24, 2010, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 21-36.) She found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the disability onset date. (AR at 26.) The ALJ further found that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: history of left ankle pain with occasional edema, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, diabetes mellitus, and obesity. (Id.)

The ALJ determined 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. (AR at 29.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following exceptions:

The claimant can lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand and walk up to 2 hours in an 8-hour day; and sit up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day. She is limited to occasional postural activities, except that she can never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds and she must avoid rough/uneven terrain. She is also limited to occasional overhead reaching, pushing, and pulling with the left upper extremity. Furthermore, the claimant must avoid hazards such as unprotected heights or dangerous machinery. (AR at 29-30.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a receptionist and telemarketer. (AR at 32.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). (AR at 33.)

On February 29, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR at 1-6.) Plaintiff then timely commenced this action for judicial review. On October 5, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to perform a proper credibility analysis. (Joint Stip. at 4.) Plaintiff seeks reversal of the Commissioner's denial of her applications and payment of benefits or, in the alternative, remand for a new administrative hearing. (Joint Stip. at 17.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. at 18.)

After reviewing the parties' contentions and the record as a whole, the Court finds Plaintiff's contention regarding the ALJ's failure to properly evaluate Plaintiff's credibility to be meritorious and remands this matter for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); 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

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for discounting her subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 4.) 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 374186 at *2 (explaining 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(4), 416.929(c)(4)).*fn1

Unless there is affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must provide specific, clear and convincing reasons for discrediting a claimant's complaints. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 883. "General findings are insufficient; rather, the ALJ must identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722 (quoting Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 834 (9th Cir. 1996)). The ALJ must consider a claimant's work record, observations of medical providers and third parties with knowledge of claimant's limitations, aggravating factors, functional restrictions caused by symptoms, effects of medication, and the claimant's daily activities. Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1283-84 & n.8 (9th Cir. 1996). ...


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