MICHAEL R. GAGGIA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
TIM WILBORN WILBORN LAW OFFICE, P.C. ATTORNEY FOR PLAINTIFF
S. AMANDA MARSHALL UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, RONALD K. SILVER ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, CATHERINE ESCOBAR SPECIAL ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY ATTORNEYS FOR DEFENDANT
OPINION & ORDER
MARCO A. HERNANDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Plaintiff Michael Gaggia brings this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny disability insurance benefits (DIB). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). I reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand for additional proceedings.
Plaintiff applied for DIB on February 12, 2010, alleging an onset date of October 29, 2007. Tr. 153-54, 167. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 64-75, 76-87. On April 13, 2012, Plaintiff appeared, with counsel, for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 35-63. On April 24, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 17-34. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-6.
Plaintiff alleges disability based on prior back surgeries and degenerative disc disease. Tr. 185. At the time of the hearing, he was sixty-two old. Tr. 38. He is a high school graduate and completed a total of two years of college courses. Tr. 39, 186. He has past work experience as a "person agent" for a social services "brokerage, " a program manager in social services, a server at a resort, and a bank teller. Tr. 187. Because the parties are familiar with the medical and other evidence of record, I refer to any additional relevant facts necessary to my decision in the discussion section below.
SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY EVALUATION
A claimant is disabled if unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(3)(a).
Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. See Valentine v. Comm'r, 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009) (in social security cases, agency uses five-step procedure to determine disability). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.
In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.
In step three, the Commissioner determines whether plaintiff's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.
In step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. In step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets his burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Tr. 22. Next, at steps two and three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the severe impairment of back pain status post two prior back surgeries and fusion of L4-5, but that the impairment did not meet or equal, either singly or in combination with other impairments, a listed impairment. Tr. 24.
At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except he can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps, stairs, ladders, rope. or scaffolds. Tr. 24. He should also avoid concentrated exposure to heights, hazards, and heavy equipment. Id. With this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to perform his past relevant work as a personal broker agent for social services. Tr. 27. Alternatively, the ALJ proceeded to step five, where he determined that Plaintiff acquired work skills from past relevant work which are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 28. As a result, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 29.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). The court considers the record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id.; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed." Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted); see also ...