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Erickson v. Shalala

filed: November 16, 1993.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. D.C. No. CV-91-0981-RMB. Rudi M. Brewster, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Stephen Reinhardt, Thomas G. Nelson, Circuit Judges, and Frank A. Kaufman, Senior District Judge.*fn* Opinion by Judge Reinhardt.

Author: Reinhardt

REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:

Jim Erickson appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The district court affirmed the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") denial of Erickson's application for disability benefits. The ALJ's denial was based upon a finding that Erickson was capable of performing light work. We reverse and remand for the payments of disability benefits.


Plaintiff-appellant Jim Erickson is a 34-year-old husband and father of three children. He has a high-school education and was a carpenter for 12 years. During that time, he also manufactured mobile homes, worked as a handyman, painted, hung drywall, and worked as a cement laborer.

In December 1988, Erickson was hospitalized after a three-month history of chronic coughing, rapid weight loss, and increased symptoms of shortness of breath. He was diagnosed with pulmonary sarcoidosis, "a debilitating pulmonary disease." Pulmonary sarcoidosis involves the thickening of the lung tissues, which stiffens the lungs and makes it more difficult to transfer oxygen into the lungs. Its exact cause is unknown, and only one-third of patients with pulmonary sarcoidosis ever improve over time.

As a result of his illness, Erickson developed lesions on his fingers, suffered from increased shortness of breath, became easily exhausted, experienced episodic dizzy spells, suffered from hot flashes, and even passed out on occasion. Almost one year after he was first hospitalized, Erickson wrote: "My breathing is bad all the time and worse at night. . . . It is all the time and [it] isn't getting better."*fn1 Erickson was eventually laid off by his employer. Although he has looked for work since then, Erickson has been unable to find an employer who is willing to accommodate his lung condition.


On August 1, 1989, Erickson filed an application for Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits ("Benefits"). His application was denied by the Social Security Administrator. On December 19, 1989, Erickson's examining physician, Dr. James Schibanoff, M.D., wrote a letter urging the Administrator to reconsider. Dr. Schibanoff wrote: "In my opinion, due to the severity of his symptoms, Mr. Erickson would clearly be unable to perform the heavy manual labor required in this line of work." Upon reconsideration, however, Erickson's application was again denied.

Erickson then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On June 21, 1990, the ALJ held a hearing at which Erickson, Dr. Richard Schillaci, M.D. (a non-examining medical expert), and Dr. Robert Metcalf, Ph.D. (a vocational expert) testified. During the hearing, the ALJ asked Dr. Schillaci whether anything in Erickson's pulmonary function test indicated that he would be unable to perform light work.*fn2 Dr. Schillaci said there was not. However, the ALJ abruptly cut off Dr. Schillaci when he began to testify about the possibility that other effects of pulmonary sarcoidosis might prevent Erickson from performing light work. After Dr. Schillaci stepped down, Dr. Metcalf testified that Erickson retained the residual capacity to perform light work. However, Dr. Metcalf's assessment was dependent upon Erickson's ability to "bluff" his way into a job and to take random breaks whenever he felt a dizzy spell approaching.*fn3

On August 28, 1990, the ALJ issued his decision. Although he found that Erickson suffered from a severe physical impairment that precluded him from performing any of his past relevant work, the ALJ found that Erickson had the residual capacity for "light work" as defined by HHS regulations. Accordingly, Erickson was denied his disability benefits. The decision became final on May 21, 1991, when the Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings.

On April 13, 1992, the district court granted summary judgment against Erickson based on the ALJ's findings. The court based its decision largely on its belief that all the experts had agreed that Erickson could perform light work. The court was clearly uncomfortable with its decision, however. During the hearing, it noted repeatedly that Erickson was going to be "very difficult to employ" and described him as "almost unemployable." The court remarked that "let's hope that the [Americans with Disabilities Act] is operative because, if it isn't, he's going to have a hard time getting a job." The court even instructed Erickson's attorney to "keep track of him" because "he ...

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