United States District Court, E.D. California
KENDALL J. NEWMAN, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff seeks judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). In her motion for summary judgment, plaintiff principally contends that the Commissioner erred by finding that plaintiff was not disabled from December 31, 2008, plaintiff's alleged disability onset date, through the date of the final administrative decision. (ECF No. 18.) The Commissioner filed an opposition to plaintiff's motion and a cross-motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 21.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed a reply brief. (ECF No. 22.)
For the reasons that follow, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part, denies the Commissioner's cross-motion for summary judgment, and remands the case for further proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Plaintiff was born on November 15, 1957 in Mexico, obtained a ninth grade education in Mexico, and previously worked as a school cafeteria server, production packager, and clerical assistant. (Administrative Transcript ("AT") 53, 203-07.) On November 20, 2009, plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging that she was unable to work as of December 31, 2008, due to a cognitive impairment that caused plaintiff difficulties with memory, concentration, and anxiety. (AT 34, 58-59, 163-67.) On March 3, 2010, the Commissioner determined that plaintiff was not disabled. (AT 86.) Upon plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the determination was affirmed on August 13, 2010. (AT 91.) Thereafter, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which took place on March 2, 2011, and at which plaintiff (represented by counsel) testified. (AT 49-83, 96-97.)
In a decision dated March 21, 2011, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from December 31, 2008, plaintiff's alleged onset date, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (AT 34-44.) The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on August 17, 2012. (AT 1.) Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action in federal district court on September 13, 2012, to obtain judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. (ECF No. 1.)
II. ISSUES PRESENTED
Plaintiff raises the following four issues: (1) whether the ALJ improperly found that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal Listing 12.05C at step two; (2) whether the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record; (3) whether the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence when assessing plaintiff's RFC; and (4) whether the ALJ made an improper credibility determination with respect to plaintiff's testimony.
III. LEGAL STANDARD
The court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether (1) it is based on proper legal standards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and (2) substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports it. Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Connett v. Barnhart , 340 F.3d 871, 873 (9th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Orn v. Astrue , 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). "The court will uphold the ALJ's conclusion when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation." Tommasetti v. Astrue , 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008).
A. Summary of the ALJ's Findings
The ALJ evaluated plaintiff's entitlement to DIB pursuant to the Commissioner's standard five-step analytical framework. At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2008, plaintiff's alleged onset date. (AT 36.) At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "mild cognitive impairment and adjustment disorder." (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Id.) Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") for the relevant time period as follows:
After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: The claimant retains the abilities to engage in simple, one to two-step instruction work not involving heights, or unguarded machinery. She should not engage in fast-paced work, such as working on an assembly line or where there are production quotas.
At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (AT 42.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined, in reliance on the Vocational Expert's testimony, that, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed, including the representative occupations of photocopy machine operator and addresser. (AT 43.)
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Act from December 31, 2008, ...