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John Hutson v. Michael J. Astrue

September 19, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Candy W. Dale Chief United States Magistrate Judge



John Hutson ("Petitioner") seeks review of the Commissioner of Social Security Administration's final decision denying Petitioner's application for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has reviewed the Petition for Review and the Answer, the parties' memoranda, and the administrative record ("AR"), and for the reasons that follow, will remand to the Commissioner with an order to award benefits.


Petitioner filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on April 13, 2009, alleging disability beginning March 15, 1994, due to mental impairments. Petitioner's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and a hearing was held on January 20, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") John T. Molleur. The ALJ issued a decision finding Petitioner not disabled on February 10, 2011, and Petitioner timely requested review by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Petitioner's request for review on June 1, 2011, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Petitioner timely filed an appeal of the Commissioner's final decision to this Court on June 30, 2011. (Dkt. 1.) The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

At the January 20, 2011 hearing, Petitioner was represented by counsel and testified on his own behalf. The ALJ also heard testimony from vocational expert Polly Peterson. Born in 1990, Petitioner was four years of age at the time of his alleged onset of disability date, eighteen years of age at the time his application was filed, and twenty years of age at the time of the ALJ's decision. Concerning his education, Petitioner was placed in special education beginning in the second grade and left school after the eighth grade. Petitioner reported making multiple attempts to pass the General Educational Development tests, but he has not received a General Equivalency Degree ("GED"). Petitioner has no past work experience.


The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is engaged in substantially gainful activity. The ALJ found Petitioner had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 3, 2009, Petitioner's protective filing date. (AR 16.) At step two, it must be determined whether the claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found that Petitioner suffered from the following severe impairments within the meaning of the Regulations: borderline intellectual functioning; learning disorder; and mood disorder, not otherwise specified. (AR 16.)

Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. A finding that one or more of a claimant's impairments meets or equals a listing presumptively demonstrates disability. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d); see also, Turner v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 613 F.3d 1217, 1221-22 (9th Cir. 2010). The ALJ found that Petitioner's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria for the listed impairments, specifically considering Petitioner's mental impairments under Listing 12.04 (Affective Disorders) and Listing 12.05 (Mental Retardation). If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work.

The ALJ determined that Petitioner had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following non-exertional limitations: "he can follow 1 to 2 step instructions; he can work in a low stress environment with only occasional decision making and changes in the work setting, and no production quotas; and he can have only brief, superficial contact with the general public, co-workers and supervisors." (AR 18.)

The decision at step four -- where the ALJ ordinarily considers whether a claimant is capable of performing past relevant work -- was not applicable in this case because Petitioner has no past relevant work. At step five of the sequential analysis, considering Petitioner's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the ALJ found that Petitioner could perform work existing in significant levels in the national economy. (AR 24.) Based upon the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that such jobs included: farm laborer, chicken farm laborer, and vegetable farm laborer. (AR 24.) Given the finding that Petitioner could perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the ALJ concluded that Petitioner was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.


Petitioner bears the burden of showing that disability benefits are proper because of the inability "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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Rhinehart v. Fitch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971).

An individual will be determined to be disabled only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he not only cannot do previous work but is unable, considering his age, education, and work experience, to engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

On review, the Court is instructed to uphold the decision of the Commissioner if the decision is supported by substantial evidence and is not the product of legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Universal Camera Corp. v. Nat'l Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474 (1951); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (as amended); DeLorme v. Sullivan, 924 F.2d 841, 846 (9th Cir. 1991). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, Jamerson v Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997), and "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence." Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).

If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing a decision, the Court may not substitute its own judgment for that of the commissioner. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). The Court, however, "must consider the entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of ...

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