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Solon Chou v. Michael J. Astrue

December 12, 2012

SOLON CHOU, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sheri Pym United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

On March 13, 2012, plaintiff Solon Chou filed a complaint against defendant Michael J. Astrue, seeking a review of a denial of a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the assigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

Plaintiff presents three disputed issues for decision: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") properly found that plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment; (2) whether the ALJ provided specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a treating physician's opinion; and (3) whether the ALJ provided clear and convincing reasons for discounting plaintiff's credibility. Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support of Complaint ("Pl. Mem.") at 9-17; Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Answer ("D. Mem.") at 2-10.

Having carefully studied, inter alia, the parties's written submissions, the Administrative Record ("AR"), and the decision of the ALJ, the court concludes that, as detailed herein, the ALJ improperly determined that plaintiff did not have a severe mental impairment, failed to provide specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the treating physician's opinion, and improperly discounted plaintiff's credibility. Therefore, the court remands this matter to the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") in accordance with the principles and instructions enunciated in this Memorandum Opinion and Order.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was 60 years old on the date of his July 27, 2010 administrative hearing, appears to have completed his secondary education. AR at 65, 108, 113, 148. His past relevant work includes employment as a cook. Id. at 145.

On June 13, 2008, plaintiff filed an application for DIB and a period of disability, alleging an onset date of August 1, 2007 due to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, memory loss, bleary vision, nervousness, numbness on the right leg, and back problems. Id. at 140, 144. The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration, after which he filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 90-93, 98-103, 105-06.

On July 27, 2010, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 61-87. Victoria Rei, a vocational expert, also provided testimony. Id. at 76-86. On August 18, 2010, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim for benefits. Id. at 17-24.

Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2007, the alleged onset date. Id. at 19.

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus and joint pain. Id.

At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, whether individually or in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"). Id. at 21.

The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and *fn1 determined that he had the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with moderate pain, which could be controlled by medications without significant side effects. Id.

The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Id. at 23.

At step five, the ALJ determined that, based upon plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, plaintiff could perform other work "existing in significant numbers in the national economy," including short order cook. Id. at 23. Consequently, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Id. at 24.

The decision of the ALJ stands as the final decision of the Commissioner.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This court is empowered to review decisions by the Commissioner to deny benefits. 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g). The findings and decision of the Social Security Administration must be upheld if they are free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence. Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 458-59 (9th Cir. 2001) (as amended). But if the court determines that the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record, the court may reject the findings and set aside the decision ...


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