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Hockett v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

May 5, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of her application for disability insurance benefits. This matter has been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule MJR 4(a)(4) and as authorized by Mathews, Secretary of H.E.W. v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the undersigned submits the following Report and Recommendation for the Court's review, recommending that, for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.


On September 29, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability as of January 15, 2009, due to sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure, back, hip, and neck pain, and a stroke affecting learning and retention. See Administrative Record ("AR") 201-02, 217. Her application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 134-36, 141-45. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on February 8, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did plaintiff's husband and a vocational expert. See AR 18, 39.

On March 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which plaintiff was determined to be not disabled. See AR 15-35. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 25, 2013, making the ALJ's decision defendant's final decision. See AR 1-6; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On June 6, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision. See Docket ("Dkt") #1. The administrative record was filed with the Court on August 15, 2013. See Dkt #9. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for judicial review and a decision by the Court.

Plaintiff argues the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded to defendant for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding her to be capable of returning to her past relevant work; and (2) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record. The undersigned agrees the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, but, for the reasons set forth below, recommends that while defendant's decision should be reversed, this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.


The determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (the"Commissioner") that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the"proper legal standards" have been applied by the Commissioner, and the"substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports" that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) ("A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.") (citing Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

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) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 ("[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record."). "The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine" whether the Commissioner's decision is"supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required." Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). "If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, " the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.") (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[1]

I. The ALJ's Step Four Determination

The claimant has the burden at step four of the disability evaluation process to show that he or she is unable to return to his or her past relevant work. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999). However, the ALJ is still required to make the requisite factual findings to support his or her conclusion that a claimant can perform their past relevant work. Pinto v. Massanari, 249 F.3d 840, 844 (9th Cir. 2001). To be found not disabled at Step 4, the claimant must be found to be able to perform the"actual functional demands and job duties" of past relevant work, or found to be able to perform the"functional demands and job duties of the occupation as generally required by employers throughout the national economy." SSR 82-61, 1982 SSR Lexis 31. The ALJ must make specific findings as to the claimant's residual functional capacity, the physical and mental demands of the past relevant work, and the relation of the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to the past relevant work. Pinto, 249 F.3d at 845 (citing SSR 82-62, 1982 Lexis 27).

The ALJ made the following RFC finding:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except for the following limitations. She is able to sit for 2-hour intervals with brief stretch breaks for up to 8 hours per day. She is able to lift and/or carry up to 10 pounds occasionally and frequently. She is able to stand and/or walk in 15-minute intervals for 1-to-2 hours per day. She is limited to occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, climbing stairs/ramps, and balancing. She can never climb ladders or crawl. As to mental residual functional capacity, she is able to remember, understand, and carry out simple and detailed instructions or tasks generally required by occupations with an SVP (specific vocational preparation) level of 1 to 4.

AR 22. Based on this RFC, the ALJ concluded the plaintiff was capable to performing her past work as a receptionist as it was actually performed and as it is generally performed in the national ...

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