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Marion v. Colvin

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

January 29, 2015

JUDY ANN MARION, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES P. DONOHUE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Judy Ann Marion appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") which denied her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83f, after a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's decision be REMANDED for calculation of benefits.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

At the time of the administrative hearing, plaintiff was a fifty-two year old woman with a limited education. Administrative Record ("AR") at 32, 34. Plaintiff did not complete the ninth grade, and was enrolled in full-time special education classes in school. AR at 54. Her past work experience includes employment as a home caregiver, cashier at Qwest Field and Key Arena, and hand packager. AR at 36-39, 62. Plaintiff testified that her last gainful employment was as a babysitter for her infant granddaughter in 2008. AR at 36, 62.

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI payments on December 14, 2004, May 4, 2006, and June 10, 2010. AR at 218 (June 2010 applications), 204-11 (May 2006 applications), 339-40 (Master Beneficiary Record from SSA showing plaintiff's disability claim with a "date of filing - 12/14/2004" and an alleged onset date of "10/2003, " as well as her two subsequent applications in May 2006 and June 2010).[1]

In her most recent June 2010 applications, she initially alleged a disability onset date of May 1, 2009. AR at 27. Plaintiff claimed disability based in large part on IQ scores establishing mental retardation. AR at 19, 29, 480, 614, 731. After plaintiff was denied at all levels of review following her June 10, 2010 claim, she requested a hearing. During the hearing, plaintiff's counsel "request[ed] a reopening of her earlier claims." AR at 29. The ALJ responded that plaintiff "has one earlier claim of May 4th, 2006. That was denied in August, 2006. That's the only other one I know about." AR at 29. Plaintiff's counsel clarified that she wanted to open the prior application, and amend her alleged onset date. AR at 29. However, plaintiff's counsel mistakenly described plaintiff's earliest application as being "filed on October 1, 2003, " when in fact the earliest application had a filing date of December 14, 2004. AR at 29.

The ALJ subsequently issued a fully favorable decision finding that "[a]fter careful review of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has been disabled from October 1, 2003, through the date of this decision." AR at 17. In the "Jurisdiction and Procedural History" section of the written decision, the ALJ explained that during the hearing plaintiff had "amended the alleged onset date of disability to October 1, 2003, " and then stated:

The claimant previously filed a Title II application on October 1, 2003 and a Title XVI application on October 1, 2003. The previous determinations are being reopened because new and material evidence has been submitted[.]"

AR at 16.

In an amended decision, however, the ALJ struck the paragraph above regarding the fact that plaintiff previously filed applications on October 1, 2003. AR at 10. Specifically, the ALJ noted that "the claimant did not file a Title II or Title XVI application on October 1, 2003. The claimant filed the present application on June 9, 2010, and the most recent prior application on May 4, 2006. As such there are no applications to reopen.... [t]he decision otherwise stands as written." AR at 10. Thus, the ALJ mistakenly indicated that "there are no applications to reopen" prior to plaintiff's May 2006 applications, but in any event did not amend her actual conclusion that "the claimant has been disabled from October 1, 2003, through the date of this decision." AR at 17.

Upon receipt of the ALJ's Amended Decision, plaintiff's counsel notified the Commissioner that there were, in fact, prior claims as informed by the Social Security field office. AR at 339-40. As discussed above, plaintiff provided a copy of the Master Beneficiary Record from SSA, which shows plaintiff's disability claim with a "date of filing - 12/14/2004" and an alleged onset date of "10/2003, " in addition to plaintiff's two subsequent applications in May 2006 and June 2010. AR at 340. Although this document was made part of the record, the ALJ did not issue a second amended decision correcting the error.

On November 20, 2012, plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, arguing that "the ALJ failed to reopen her prior claims under SSR 91-5p and constitutional due process grounds given her conceded mental limitations, including mental retardation." AR at 11. On February 28, 2014, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the "final decision" of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). AR at 1-4. On April 9, 2014, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 3.

II. JURISDICTION

Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). "Substantial evidence" is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.

The Court may direct an award of benefits where "the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose." McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d ...


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