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Jeanette Ramirez v. Michael J. Astrue

October 25, 2012

JEANETTE RAMIREZ,
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 Jeanette Ramirez seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her applications 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 October 16, 1950, and was 58 years old at the time she filed her applications for benefits. (Administrative Record ("AR") at 101.) She has a high school education and has relevant work experience as a bank teller and legal secretary. (AR at 116, 121.)

Plaintiff filed her benefits applications on November 26, 2008, alleging disability beginning July 1, 2003, due to kidney disease, high blood pressure, fatigue, and depression. (AR at 21, 57.)

Plaintiff's applications were denied on March 27, 2009. (AR at 57-61.) An administrative hearing was held on October 25, 2010, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") John Kays. Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified, as did medical expert Dr. Sami Nafoosi, and a vocational expert. (AR at 35-55.) On January 7, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (AR at 21-28.) He found that the medical evidence established that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, peripheral vascular disease, hypertension, diverticulosis, and neurodermatitis. (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. (Id.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) with the following exceptions: "stand and walk for thirty minutes at a time for a maximum of four hours in an eight-hour workday, and avoid exposure to dust, fumes, gases, air pollutants, and extreme temperatures." (AR at 24.) In doing so, he found that Plaintiff's testimony regarding her limitations was not fully credible. (AR at 32.) The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a legal secretary and was therefore not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). (AR at 27-28.)

On February 22, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review. (AR at 1-5.) Plaintiff then timely commenced this action for judicial review. On October 2, 2012, the parties filed a Joint Stipulation ("Joint Stip.") of disputed facts and issues. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by:

(1) failing to perform a proper credibility analysis; (2) improperly relying on the testimony of the medical expert, Dr. Sami Nafoosi, M.D.; and (3) failing to properly consider the medical evidence in the record. (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 26.) The Commissioner requests that the ALJ's decision be affirmed. (Joint Stip. at 28.)

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.*fn1

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 rejecting her subjective symptom testimony. (Joint Stip. at 5.) 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)).*fn2

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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