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Mario Leal v. Carolyn W. Colvin

March 28, 2013

MARIO LEAL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING 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 June 14, 2012, plaintiff Mario Leal filed a complaint against defendant, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), seeking a review of a denial of disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits ("SSI"). Both plaintiff and defendant have consented to proceed for all purposes before the Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). The parties' briefing is now complete, and the court deems the matter suitable for adjudication without oral argument.

Two issues are presented for decision here: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") gave specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting the opinion of a treating physician; and (2) whether the ALJ properly discountedthe testimony of lay witness Christina Leal, plaintiff's sister.

Having carefully studied, inter alia, the briefs submitted by the parties and the Administrative Record ("AR"), the court finds that the ALJ erred. First, the ALJ's bases for rejecting the opinion of treating physician Dr. Fortuna Israel were not specific and legitimate reasons supported by substantial evidence. And second, the ALJ erred in rejecting Ms. Leal's testimony without providing specific reasons for doing so. The court therefore reverses the Commissioner's decision denying benefits and remands for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who was thirty-one years old on the date of his December 22, 2010 administrative hearing, has a tenth-grade education. See AR at 25, 28, 29. His past relevant work includes employment as a forklift driver and carpet layer. Id. at 31, 46.

Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on February 26, 2009. Id. at 166-171, 172-74. In both applications, plaintiff alleged that he has been disabled since January 2, 2009. Id. at 168, 172. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, after which he filed a request for a hearing. Id. at 85-98.

On December 22, 2010, plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. at 25-51. The ALJ also heard testimony from a vocational expert ("VE"), Sandra Fioretti. Id. at 45-51. On March 10, 2011, the ALJ affirmed the denial of plaintiff's request for benefits. Id. at 55-65.

Applying the well-known five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found, at step one, that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged disability onset date. AR at 60.

At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from severe impairments consisting of: schizophrenia with paranoid features, right iliotibia band syndrome, lumbar facet arthropathy, and alcohol dependence. Id.

At step three, the ALJ determined that the evidence does not demonstrate that plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal the severity of any listing set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

The ALJ then assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), and *fn1 determined that he can perform less than the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(c). AR at 61. The ALJ specifically found that plaintiff "can *fn2 lift and/or carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks; and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks." Id. Further, the ALJ found that plaintiff could climb stairs or scaffolds, stoop, kneel, crawl frequently, and use his hands for fine manipulation frequently. Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff could not, however, perform fast-paced work or work that had production requirements. Id.

The ALJ found, at step four, that plaintiff is not capable of performing his past relevant work as an industrial truck ...


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