This social security action was submitted to the court without oral argument for ruling on plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, plaintiff's motion is granted, defendant's cross-motion is denied, the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) is reversed, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this order.
On May 24, 2007, plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), alleging disability beginning on January 16, 2007. (Transcript (Tr.) at 161.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 69-79.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on October 26, 2009. (Id. at 28-66.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the administrative hearing. In a decision issued on December 14, 2009, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 23.) The ALJ entered the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 16, 2007, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq.).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: chronic neck pain status post fusion surgery, low back pain with radiculopathy, and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
4. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, lifting/carrying 20 pounds occasionally, lifting/carrying 10 pounds frequently, standing/walking 6 hours in an 8 hour day, sitting 6 hours in an 8 hour day, never balancing, never climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds, avoiding work at unprotected heights or around dangerous moving machinery, and occasionally flexing the neck. (20 CFR 404.1567(b); Social Security Rulings 83-10 and 96-8p).
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 CFR 404.1565).
7. The claimant was born on May 19, 1961 and was 45 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 CFR 404.1563).
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 404.1564).
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is "not disabled," whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
10. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 CFR 404.1569 and 404.1569(a)).
11. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 16, 2007 through the date of this decision (20 CFR 404.1520(g)). (Id. at 18-23.)
On February 14, 2011, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 2-3.) Plaintiff sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) by filing the complaint in this action on April 7, 2011.
The Commissioner's decision that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and the proper legal standards were applied. Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 973 (9th Cir. 2000); Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). The findings of the Commissioner as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. Miller v. Heckler, 770 F.2d 845, 847 (9th Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Osenbrock v. Apfel, 240 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Morgan, 169 F.3d at 599); Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
A reviewing court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Jones, 760 F.2d at 995. The court may not affirm the ALJ's decision simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Id.; see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence supporting a finding of either disability or non-disability, the finding of the ALJ is conclusive, Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987), and may be set aside only if an improper legal standard was applied in weighing the evidence, Burkhart v. Bowen, 856 F.2d 1335, 1338 (9th Cir. 1988).
In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ should apply the five-step sequential evaluation process established under Title 20 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 404.1520 and 416.920. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). The five-step process has been summarized as follows:
Step one: Is the claimant engaging in substantial gainful activity? If so, the claimant is found not disabled. ...