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Prentice A. Hale v. Michael J. Astrue

January 7, 2013

PRENTICE A. HALE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jean Rosenbluth U.S. Magistrate Judge

I. PROCEEDINGS

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REVERSING COMMISSIONER AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

Plaintiff seeks review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Social Security disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The parties consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned U.S. Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). This matter is before the Court on the parties' Joint Stipulation, filed December 13, 2012, which the Court has taken under submission without oral argument. For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this matter is remanded for further proceedings.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born on May 26, 1959. (Administrative Record ("AR") 38.) She has a high school diploma. (Id.) Plaintiff worked for approximately 27 years as a telephone operator. (AR 41-42, 158.) She stopped working on January 8, 2005, when she was injured in an automobile accident. (AR 166, 295-96.) On November 17, 2008, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of January 8, 2005. (AR 144.) The application was denied on March 10, 2009. (AR 96-101.)

After Plaintiff's application was denied, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (AR 105-06.) A hearing was held on May 27, 2010, at which Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified on her own behalf. (AR 34-86.) Vocational Expert ("VE") Stephen Berry also testified. (Id.) On August 10, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision determining that good cause existed to reopen Plaintiff's December 7, 2005 DIB application and that Plaintiff was disabled from January 8, *fn1 2005, to March 10, 2006, but not after that. (AR 15-33.) On October 8, 2010, Plaintiff requested review of that portion of the ALJ's decision denying benefits as of March 11, 2006. (AR 10-14.) On December 21, 2011, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (AR 3-7.) This action followed.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a district court may review the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits. The ALJ's findings and decision should be upheld if they are free of legal error and are supported by substantial evidence based on the record as a whole. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971); 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, 402 U.S. at 401; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance. Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035 (citing 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 reasonably support either affirming or reversing," the reviewing court "may not substitute its judgment" for that of the Commissioner. Id. at 720-21.

IV. THE EVALUATION OF DISABILITY

People are "disabled" for purposes of receiving Social Security benefits if they are unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity owing to a physical or mental impairment that is expected to result in death or which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Drouin v. Sullivan, 966 F.2d 1255, 1257 (9th Cir. 1992).

A. The Five-Step Evaluation Process The ALJ follows a five-step sequential evaluation process in assessing whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995) (as amended Apr. 9, 1996). In the first step, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting his ability to do basic work activities; if not, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") set forth at 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; if so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits are awarded. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the Listing, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has sufficient residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform her *fn2 past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim must be denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). The claimant has the burden of proving that she is unable to perform past relevant work. Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257. If the claimant meets that burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. Id. If that happens or if the claimant has no past relevant work, the Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant is not disabled because she can perform other substantial gainful work available in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). That determination comprises the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis. § 404.1520; Lester, 81 F.3d at 828 n.5; Drouin, 966 F.2d at 1257.

B. The ALJ's Application of the Five-Step Process At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since January 8, 2005. (AR 22.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "history of injury to the left upper extremity, status post surgery to the left proximal arm with residual weakness and paralysis; morbid obesity; and non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments in the Listing. (AR 24.) At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to work from January 8, 2005, to March 10, 2006 (id.), but beginning March 11, 2006, Plaintiff's disability ended and she was able to perform "light work" with *fn3 the limitations that Plaintiff can stand and walk up to 4 hours and sit up to 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She can perform work that does not require climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, or crawling, and no more than occasional climbing of ramps or stairs, balancing[,] stooping, kneeling and crouching. The claimant is right-hand dominant and cannot lift, reach, push, pull, handle, or finger objects with her non-dominant left upper extremity/hand. She can perform work that does not require even moderate exposure to extreme vibration and no exposure to extreme cold, hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, or other high risk, hazardous or unsafe conditions. (AR 25-26.) Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a telephone operator but had the RFC to perform such jobs as greeter and final inspector. (AR 29.) The ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (AR 30.)

V. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in (1) evaluating and weighing the findings and opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician; (2) evaluating Plaintiff's credibility; and (3) finding that Plaintiff could perform other work as of March 11, 2006. (J. Stip at 2-3.) Because the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's treating physician's opinion and Plaintiff's testimony for reasons that were not supported ...


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