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Noble v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 12, 2014

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


JOHN T. RODGERS, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 19, 27. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Plaintiff, and Special Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 15. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


On September 15, 2005, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, along with a Title XVI application for supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning September 15, 2004. Tr. 17; 127. Plaintiff reported that she was unable to work due to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Tr. 102. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and she requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Tr. 32-78.

On January 23, 2008, ALJ Hayward C. Reed held a hearing. Tr. 394-435. On February 8, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 17-29. The Appeals Council declined review, and after Plaintiff filed a petition in District Court, the parties stipulated to a remand. Tr. 509-13. Subsequently, the Appeals Council issued a remand order that vacated the February 8, 2008 decision. Tr. 516-17.

ALJ R.J. Payne held a second hearing on March 19, 2010. Tr. 805-31. On April 8, 2010, the ALJ issued an opinion finding Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 463-78. The Appeals Council again remanded the case for additional proceedings. Tr. 503-07.

The most recent hearing in this case was held on July 20, 2011, at which vocational expert Deborah LaPoint, and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified. Tr. 792-804. ALJ R.J. Payne presided. Tr. 792. Subsequently, the ALJ denied benefits on August 12, 2011. Tr. 450-59. The ALJ noted that the Appeals Council "did not expressly vacate the prior unfavorable Administrative Law Judge decision, but remanded it for supplemental vocational expert information." Tr. 450. Additionally, the ALJ incorporated the prior opinion's findings and conclusions: "The claimant's medical history, as set forth in the prior unfavorable Administrative Law Judge decision is incorporated herewith for purposes of setting forth the facts contained therein, including the conclusions derived therefrom." Tr. 453. The Appeals Council declined review. Tr. 4-7. The instant matter is before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties and, thus, they are only briefly summarized here. At the time of the third hearing, Plaintiff was 34 years old, single and lived with her four-year old child and a roommate. Tr. 817. She completed high school, and trained at Apollo College for nine months to become a medical administrative assistant. Tr. 818.

Plaintiff testified that she has worked as a cashier at a grocery store and at Walmart, as a caregiver, and she has stocked shelves. Tr. 819-20. Plaintiff said she quit her last job because it was hard and very stressful. Tr. 820. Plaintiff testified that every day she feels tired, sad and angry, and she sleeps poorly at night. Tr. 821-22. Plaintiff also testified that her roommate and her mother help care for her child. Tr. 824.

Plaintiff said she shops with her mother or her roommate because she gets panicky if she goes alone, and she does not leave home very often. Tr. 825. She likes watching television. Tr. 830. Plaintiff said she has problems with her back, and she estimated that she can sit for up to an hour and one half, and the amount of time she can stand varies. Tr. 826. She said she cannot walk very much because she does not have the energy for it, and she can lift about 20 pounds. Tr. 827. Plaintiff said she was unable to work because she could not handle being "out there" and with people. Tr. 827.


The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, although deference is owed to a reasonable construction of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, 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) . If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). If substantial evidence exists to support the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence exists that will support a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987).


The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents him from engaging in his previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot do his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work; and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy which claimant can perform. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of "disabled" is made. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I-v), 416.920(a)(4)(I-v).


At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 15, 2004, her alleged onset date. Tr. 452. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of depressive disorder and personality disorder. Tr. 452. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments, alone and in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. Tr. 453. The ALJ found that the Plaintiff was able to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with non-exertional limitations:

The undersigned noted the claimant had the average ability to read, write and use numbers, but had either no limitations or, at times, moderate limitations in her ability to carry out detailed instructions. Moreover, she had moderate limitations in her ability to be in coordination or proximity to others without being distracted by them and moderate limitations when interacting with the public. Furthermore, she had moderate limitations in her ability to set realistic goals. Last, there was mental symptomology and she took prescribed medications for those symptoms. Yet, despite the effects of medications, she would be able to be reasonably attentive and responsive in a work setting or in her ability to carry out work assignments in a satisfactory manner.

Tr. 454. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 456. The ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, job existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as housekeeping cleaner, janitor, or ...

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