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Liu v. Colvin

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

April 9, 2015

ZAO LIN LIU, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER ON SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY

RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Zao Lin Liu, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits, under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This matter has been fully briefed and, after reviewing the record in its entirety, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision.

II. BACKGROUND

On June 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed concurrent applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income disability benefits (SSI), alleging disability commencing on September 1, 2007. Tr. 188-203. She later amended her onset date to June 2, 2011. Tr. 32. Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 71-120. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") M.J. Adams on December 17, 2012. Tr. 45-70. On January 25, 2013, Judge Adams issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 27-43.

On July 15, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Liu's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final agency decision.[1] Plaintiff timely filed this judicial action.

III. JURISDICTION

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

IV. 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).

V. EVALUATING DISABILITY

As the claimant, Ms. Liu 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), 1382c(a)(3)(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, 1098-23 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, 416.920. 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 any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need to consider subsequent steps. Step one asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in "substantial gainful activity" (SGA). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[2] If she is, disability benefits are denied. If she is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that she has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to determine whether the impairment meets or equals any of the listed impairments described in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required twelve-month duration requirement is disabled. Id.

When the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the Commissioner must proceed to step four and evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether she can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled; if the opposite is true, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099, 1100. If the Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded.

VI. ALJ DECISION

Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found:

Step one: Ms. Liu had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 2, 2011, the alleged onset date. Tr. 32.

Step two: Ms. Liu had medical impairments that caused more than a minimal effect on her ability to perform basic work activities. Specifically, she suffered from the following "severe" impairments: anxiety disorder and depressive disorder. Tr. 32.

Step three: These impairments are not severe enough to meet the requirements of any listed impairment in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. Tr. 32.

Residual Functional Capacity: Ms. Liu had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertion levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant can understand, remember and carry out simple instructions required of jobs classified at a level of SVP 1 and 2 or unskilled work. She can make judgments on simple work-related decisions and can respond ...


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