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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 31, 2015

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


SALVADOR MENDOZA, Jr., District Judge.

Before the Court, without oral argument, are cross summary judgment motions. ECF Nos. 21 & 28. Plaintiff Kathleen Smith appeals the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) denial of benefits. ECF No. 1. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred at steps three and five of the sequential evaluation process. Further, Plaintiff believes the ALJ also erred in (1) considering the opinions and records of treating physicians, (2) finding that fibromyalgia was a non-severe impairment, (3) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiff's testimony, and (4) not giving specific germane reasons for rejecting the statement of Plaintiff's daughter. ECF No. 21 at 4-5. Plaintiff believes that the Court should overturn the ALJ's denial of benefits or, in the alternative, to remand the matter to consider additional medical evidence. The Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") asks the Court to affirm the ALJ's decision.

After reviewing the record and relevant authority, the Court is fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court remands the case so that the new medical evidence can be considered.

A. Statement of Facts[1]

At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 47 years old, was single, and lived by herself in a manufactured home. She testified to having an eighth or ninth grade education, that she was in special education through junior high school, and that she continues to struggle with reading and understanding even simple instructions. Up until August 2010, Plaintiff worked as a hairstylist and also as a caregiver. Plaintiff believes she is entitled to benefits as a result of numerous sever physical and mental conditions that have made her unable to work since March 2011. Specifically, Plaintiff suffers from spinal issues, among other physical and mental impairments.

Plaintiff has been treated for these spinal issues by Dr. Peter Ward and Dr. Hank Vejovoda.

At the hearing, the ALJ did not find that Plaintiff has suffered from any sever impairments. Further, the ALJ did not find Plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms to be credible. Accordingly, the ALJ denied benefits on the grounds that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with some limitations and that she is capable of performing past relevant work as a hairstylist.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on March 31, 2011. This application was denied as was her request for reconsideration. Subsequently, Plaintiff filed a request for hearing. The ALJ conducted a hearing and, on November 2, 2012, issued a decision denying benefits. Plaintiff requested a review of the decision by the Appeals Counsel, and presented new medical records from several visits to Dr. Vejovoda, one of which was a spinal surgery. The Appeals Counsel denied this request for review in January 2014. Plaintiff filed a timely complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), claiming that the ALJ erred and that his decision should be overturned or the matter should be remanded.

C. Disability Determination

A "disability" is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The decision-maker uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

Step one assesses whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If he is, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If he is not, the decision-maker proceeds to step two.

Step two assesses whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not, the disability claim is denied. If the claimant does, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

Step three compares the claimant's impairment with a number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404 Subpt. P App. 1, 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed ...

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