United States District Court, D. Arizona
Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge
Pending before the Court is the appeal of Claimant, which challenges the Social Security Administration’s decision to deny benefits. (Doc. 15.) Defendant Commissioner concedes that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to support his decision to deny the Claimant benefits with substantial evidence. (Doc. 19 at 2.) Accordingly, the Court vacates the ALJ’s decision and remands for further proceedings.
On February 24, 2011 and March 10, 2011, Claimant applied for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits (Title II), and supplemental security income benefits (Title XVI), alleging a disability onset date of December 20, 2004. (R. at 13.) Claimant’s date last insured (“DLI”) for disability insurance benefits, and thus the date on or before which he must have been disabled, was December 31, 2006. (R. at 13.) Claimant’s claims were denied initially, although upon reconsideration the state agency revived her Title XVI claim and adjudged Claimant disabled as of November 27, 2010, but not before. (R. at 13.) Claimant then appealed to an ALJ. (R. at 13.) The ALJ conducted a hearing on the matter on April 30, 2012. (R. at 13.) At the hearing, the Claimant amended her alleged onset date from February 14, 2001 to December 20, 2004. (R. at 13.) The period of disability at issue, therefore, begins on December 20, 2004 and ends on November 27, 2010. (R. at 13.)
In assessing whether Claimant was disabled, the ALJ undertook the five-step sequential evaluation for determining disability. (R. at 13-22.) Ultimately the ALJ concluded that Claimant was not disabled. (R. at 22.) The Appeals Council declined to review the decision. (R. at 1.) The Council accepted the ALJ's statements of the law, the issues in the case, and the evidentiary facts, as well as the ALJ's findings and ultimate conclusions regarding whether Plaintiff was disabled. (R. at 1.) The Council thereupon agreed that Claimant was not disabled. (R. at 2.)
Plaintiff filed the complaint underlying this action on August 25, 2014, seeking this Court's review of the ALJ's denial of benefits. (Doc. 1.) Claimant filed her opening brief on April 23, 2015. (Doc. 15.) Defendant filed its response on May 27, 2015. (Doc. 19.) At the outset of its response, the Defendant stated: “In the course of preparing her defense, Defendant Commissioner of Social Security concluded the decision of the [ALJ] is not supported by substantial evidence. Thus, the parties agree the ALJ erred and that [Claimant] is entitled to judgment.” (Id. at 1-2.) The Claimant filed his reply on June 26, 2015. (Doc. 22.) The matter is now fully briefed.
I. Standard of Review
The scope of judicial review is constrained by the Social Security Act and thus permits a federal court to set aside a denial of disability benefits only if that denial is either unsupported by substantial evidence or based on legal error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When, as here, the Commissioner concedes that the ALJ’s decision is unsupported by substantial evidence, the Act “makes clear that courts are empowered to . . . modify or reverse a decision by the Commissioner ‘with or without remanding the case for a rehearing.’” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1019 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting § 405(g)). “While [courts] generally remand to the [ALJ] for ‘additional investigation or explanation, ’” Treichler v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1100 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted), the Ninth Circuit, like every other circuit, recognizes that “in appropriate circumstances courts are free to reverse and remand a determination by the Commissioner with instructions to calculate and award benefits.” Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1019 (citing cases from every circuit).
Remanding for an award of benefits, however, is not at the full discretion of the reviewing court. Rather, the Ninth Circuit devised what is known as the “three-part credit-as-true standard, each part of which must be satisfied in order for a court to remand to an ALJ with instructions to calculate and award benefits[.]” Id. at 1020. The Claimant must establish: first, that the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion; second, that the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose; and third, whether if the improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled on remand. See Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1100-01 (citing Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1020). If all three conditions are met, the reviewing court may remand for an award of benefits. Id. at 1101. Nonetheless, the reviewing court retains flexibility in determining the appropriate remedy if the record as a whole still creates “serious doubt as to whether the claimant is, in fact, disabled[.]” Id. at 1107 (citing Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1021.)
1. The ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting both Claimant and her husband’s testimony.
The ALJ rejected various sources of evidence supporting Claimant’s disability for legally insufficient reasons. The ALJ first erred when it concluded that the Claimant’s symptom and pain testimony lacked credibility due simply to its shortage of supporting medical evidence on the record. (R. at 20 (“The claimant’s testimony is not fully credible concerning the severity of her limitation, during the period in question. Neither the severity nor the extent is supported by the medical evidence on the record.”).) Claimant’s testimony includes, inter alia, that she can help around the house for about 30 minutes before needing a rest, and she can stand for 20 minutes at a time, sit for 20-30 minutes at a time, walk a block, and lift a gallon of milk. (R. at 48, 52.) Four times a day she needs to lie down and rest for approximately 45 minutes to two hours. (R. at 49.) And finally, due to her depression, ...