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Hodgens v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

December 31, 2014

DESIREE HODGENS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS (RE: DOCKET NO. 18)

PAUL S. GREWAL, Magistrate Judge.

This case is nearly identical to Bustamante v. Massanari . [1]

There, the Ninth Circuit first held the administrative law judge committed legal error by evaluating the claimant's impairments using the five-step sequential process without separating out the impact of his alcoholism. Second, the ALJ's alternative finding that the claimant's mental impairments were not severe, regardless of the impact of alcoholism, was not supported by substantial evidence where an examining psychologist found the claimant had "a marked degree of impairment in activities of daily living, as well as cognitive functioning and interpersonal relations."[2]

Here, the ALJ likewise ruled out disability without separating out Plaintiff Desiree Hodgens' past substance abuse. Further, there was insubstantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding where her treating physician testified without rebuttal that Hodgens had "marked difficulty interacting adequately with others" and "marked difficulties concentrating or persisting independently at work-related activities at a consistent pace for a normal workday or workweek."[3]

Just as the errors in this case and binding precedent from the Ninth Circuit are nearly identical, so too must be the outcome. That the Commissioner does not even address Bustamante in its papers, let alone distinguish it, all but confirms this outcome. Because the ALJ applied improper legal standards by considering the impact of substance abuse prematurely, and her determination was not supported by substantial evidence, the court GRANTS Hodgens' motion for summary judgment and remands the case.

I.

Through its administrative law judges, the Commissioner of Social Security evaluates claims using a sequential five-step evaluation process. In the first step, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity, and if so, the claimant is not disabled and the claim is denied.[4] If the claimant currently is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the second step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to do basic work activities; if not, the ALJ finds the claimant "not disabled" and the claim is denied.[5] If the claimant has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments, the third step requires the ALJ to determine whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment in the listing of impairments.[6] If so, disability is conclusively presumed and benefits awarded.[7]

If the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments does not meet or equal an impairment in the listing, the fourth step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has sufficient "residual functional capacity"[8] to perform his or her past work; if so, the claimant is not disabled and the ALJ denies the claim.[9] It is the claimant's burden to prove that he or she is unable to perform past relevant work.[10] If the claimant meets this burden, a prima facie case of disability is established. The Commissioner then bears the burden of establishing that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work, [11] comprising the fifth and final step in the sequential analysis.

Impairments that can be controlled effectively with treatment are not disabling.[12] A claimant will not be found disabled if she does not follow her prescribed treatment without good reason.[13] Further, an "individual shall not be considered to be disabled for purposes of [benefits under Title II or XVI of the Act] if alcoholism or drug addiction would (but for this subparagraph) be a contributing factor material to the Commissioner's determination that the individual is disabled."[14] An ALJ need not evaluate alcoholism's contribution to a claimant's symptoms when substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that the claimant's symptoms were not severe in the first place.[15] But "[i]t is an error for the ALJ to determine that a claimant's mental impairments are the product and consequence of his alcohol abuse' prior to making a determination that the claimant is disabled under the five-step inquiry."[16]

Over six years ago, Hodgens filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental security income.[17] In both applications, Hodgens claimed disability beginning August 1, 2007.[18] The claims were denied initially, upon reconsideration, following a hearing[19] and upon administrative appeal for review.[20]

Hodgens now requests that this court reverse and set aside the decision of the Commissioner or alternatively remand the case back to the Commissioner for a hearing de novo or for proper evaluation of the evidence.[21] The Commissioner requests that the court affirm the ALJ's decision or remand so that the Commissioner may correct any perceived errors.

II.

The court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The parties further consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(a). The court finds this motion suitable for disposition on the papers in light of this court's Procedural Order on Social Security Cases, [22] its local rules[23] and the parties' representations at a status conference following transfer of this case to this district.[24]

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has the authority to review the Commissioner's decision denying Hodgens her benefits. The Commissioner's decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based upon the application of improper legal standards.[25] In this context, the term "substantial evidence" means "more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance-it is such relevant evidence a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion."[26] When determining whether substantial evidence exists to support the administrative record as a whole, the court must consider adverse as well as supporting evidence.[27] Where evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the decision of the ALJ.[28] However, a non-examining ...


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