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Reed-Walter v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

February 6, 2015

KAMI REED-WALTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES P. DONOHUE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Kami Reed-Walter appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") which denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, after a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

At the time of her date last insured in June 2008, plaintiff was a 46 year old woman with a high school equivalent education. Administrative Record ("AR") at 57-58, 172, 181, 185. Her past work experience includes employment as a property manager, sales manager, a social service aid, kitchen helper, dishwasher, cook, food server, and grocery checker. AR at 69-79, 97-98. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2008. AR at 69, 176-82.

On December 10, 2010, plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset date of May 21, 2008. AR at 33, 172-75. For purposes of DIB, plaintiff's date last insured is June 30, 2008. AR at 181. Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled due to neck pain, depression, and breathing difficulties. AR at 189.

The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 108-11, 116-17. Plaintiff requested a hearing which took place on November 16, 2012. AR at 49-103. On December 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on a finding that plaintiff could perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy including work as a folding machine operator, bagger, and sorter/packer. AR at 30-48. Plaintiff's administrative appeal of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-6, making the ALJ's ruling the "final decision" of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On May 8, 2014, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. No. 1.

II. JURISDICTION

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

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 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996)). The Court may find that this occurs when:

(1) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the claimant's evidence; (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made; and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled if he considered the claimant's evidence.

Id. at 1076-77; see also Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2000) (noting that erroneously rejected evidence may be credited when all three elements are met).

IV. EVALUATING DISABILITY

As the claimant, Ms. Reed-Walter bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). The Act defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity" due to a physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

The Commissioner has established a five step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to be disabled at ...


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