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Terri Cobb v. Michael J. Astrue

March 17, 2011

TERRI COBB, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Beryl A. Howell United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Terri Cobb, the plaintiff in this action, seeks a judgment reversing the denial of her claim for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits by the Social Security Administration (the "Administration"). Complaint ¶ 4. The plaintiff's motion for a judgment of reversal and the defendant's motion for a judgment of affirmance are before the Court. After carefully considering the plaintiff's complaint, the administrative record, the parties' motions, and all memoranda of law and exhibits relating to those motions, the Court grants the plaintiff's motion, denies the defendant's motion, and remands this case to the Administration for the reasons explained below.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The plaintiff is a 45-year-old woman with a high school education and additional training as an electrician. Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 58, 343. She previously worked as an electrician. Id. at 343. According to the plaintiff, on June 10, 2003, she was injured in a work-related accident when she fell from a ladder. Id.; Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 2.

On June 6, 2005, the plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act.*fn1 A.R. at 78. She alleged disability commencing August 9, 2004 based on arthritis, back and neck pain, and depression. Id. at 19, 58-60, 122-23.

The plaintiff's claim for disability was denied initially and denied again upon reconsideration. Id. at 44-47, 50-53. Thereafter, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (the "ALJ"), which was held on April 2, 2008. Id. at 19. The plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified at the hearing. Id. at 16-26. The ALJ denied the plaintiff's request for benefits by decision dated July 14, 2008. Id.

The plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the decision of the ALJ, but, on February 20, 2009, the Appeals Council determined that there was no basis for granting the request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Id. at 5-8.

On April 21, 2009, the plaintiff filed this action seeking reversal or remand of the Administration's final decision denying her benefits. Her motion for judgment of reversal or remand was filed on January 9, 2010. The plaintiff argues that the final decision of the Administration "fails to be supported by substantial evidence, and is erroneous as a matter of law." Pl.'s Mem. at 1. Specifically, she contends the ALJ erroneously evaluated her residual functional capacity, which is a mandatory assessment of the plaintiff's capacity for work despite any impairment she may have. See id. at 3-13.

In response to the plaintiff's motion, the defendant moved for judgment of affirmance, arguing that the ALJ's final decision is supported by substantial evidence and is in accordance with applicable law. See generally Def.'s Mem. for J. of Affirmance and Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for J. of Reversal ("Def.'s Mem.").

Both parties' motions are now before the Court.

II.Standard of Review

The Social Security Act gives federal district courts jurisdiction over civil cases that challenge a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The reviewing court must uphold the decision of the Commissioner if it is based on substantial evidence in the record and the correct application of the relevant legal standards. Id.; Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence "requires more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of the evidence." Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 (quoting Fla. Mun. Power Agency v. FERC, 315 F.3d 362, 365-66 (D.C. Cir. 2003)). The Court does not review the decision de novo. Davis v. Heckler, 566 F. Supp. 1193, 1195 (D.D.C. 1983). Although the reviewing court "must carefully scrutinize the entire record," its role is "not to determine . . . whether [the plaintiff] is disabled," but only to assess "whether the ALJ's finding that she is not is based on substantial evidence and a correct application of the law." Butler, 353 F.3d at 999.

III.Statutory and Regulatory Framework

To qualify for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, the plaintiff must establish that she is "disabled." 42 U.S.C. § 423. "Disability" means the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." Id. § 423(d)(1)(A). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, ...


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