United States District Court, W.D. Washington
KRISTI L. SOMA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant
For Kristi L. Soma, Plaintiff: Rosemary B. Schurman, LEAD ATTORNEY, KIRKLAND, WA.
For Carolyn W Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant: Kerry Jane Keefe, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE (SEA), SEATTLE, WA; Daphne Banay, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, OFFICE OF GENERAL COUNSEL, SEATTLE, WA.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Mary Alice Theiler, Chief United States Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Kristi Soma proceeds with counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda, the Court recommends this matter be REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL
Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1961. She completed high school, attended some college, and previously worked as a game auditor. (AR 41.) Plaintiff filed her DIB application in March 2011 and protectively filed for SSI in April 2012, alleging disability beginning March 15, 2008. (AR 120-21, 130-33.) She remained insured for DIB through June 30, 2010 and, therefore, was required to establish disability on or prior to that " date last insured" (DLI) in order to qualify for DIB. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.131, 404.321. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and she timely requested a hearing.
On September 17, 2012, ALJ Verrell Dethloff held a hearing, taking testimony from plaintiff. (AR 36-49.) Plaintiff appeared pro se at the hearing. On December 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (AR 17-31.)
Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied review on May 15, 2014 (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed to this Court.
The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the March 15, 2008 alleged onset date.
At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found no severe impairment. Addressing severity in relation to plaintiff's DIB claim, the ALJ found insufficient evidence to evaluate the severity of plaintiff's mental impairment given the " very sparse record" for the period through plaintiff's DLI. (AR 22.) As to plaintiff's SSI claim, the ALJ found the record consistent with a finding of no severe mental impairment from the protective filing date of April 13, 2012. (Id.) He added that, while there were opinions indicating plaintiff had significant functional mental limitations, those opinions were based on evaluations done well before the relevant time period and, therefore, given no weight. (AR 23.) However, the ALJ also rendered an alternative finding, deeming plaintiff's major depressive disorder severe at step two.
Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found plaintiff had the RFC to understand, remember, and perform simple, repetitive work, as well as some complex tasks, up to four-to-five steps. With that RFC, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a game auditor.
If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work or has no past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. The ALJ here further concluded that, assuming plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, she would be found not disabled within the framework of Medical-Vocational Guideline Number 204. The ALJ, therefore, concluded plaintiff was not disabled at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision.
This Court's review of the final decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the final decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in rejecting medical opinions and finding no severe impairment prior to the DLI, and erred in rejecting both her testimony and a lay witness statement. She also argues error in the RFC assessment and step four and five conclusions. She requests remand for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner ...