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Hayes v. Colvin

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

April 21, 2015

LAURA C. HAYES, Plaintiff,


JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.


Plaintiff Laura Hayes 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. §§ 401-433, after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The court has considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record ("AR"), and the parties' briefs. Being fully advised, the court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS this action to the Commissioner for rehearing.


The facts of the case are set forth in the ALJ's decision (AR (Dkt. # 8) at 8-36), the administrative hearing transcript (AR at 37-56), and the briefs of the parties (Op. Brief (Dkt. # 11); Resp. (Dkt. # 18); Reply (Dkt. # 19)). They are only briefly summarized here.

Ms. Hayes was 43 years old on the date last insured for DIB. (AR at 11, 28.) She was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia at age 22, but she was able to work as an emergency room nurse despite her illness. (AR at 46.) She was later diagnosed with other ailments, including undifferentiated connective tissue disorder. (AR at 45-46). Ms. Hayes last worked in July 2009, and in January 2010 she gave birth to a daughter with a chromosomal abnormality. (AR at 44-45.) She testified that she had planned to return to work after her daughter was born, but felt that her physical and mental limitations prevented her from doing so. (AR at 45.)

Ms. Hayes filed an application for DIB on August 31, 2011. (AR at 11.) The Social Security Administration denied her application initially (AR at 57, 87), and on reconsideration (AR at 71, 95). After a hearing, the ALJ once again denied her application for DIB. (AR at 11.)

In rendering his written decision, the ALJ followed the Social Security Administration's five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled.[1] At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Hayes had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disability. (AR at 13.) At step two, he found that she had the severe impairments of fibromyalgia, undifferentiated connective tissue disease, recurrent arrhythmia, obesity, affective disorder, and an organic mental disorder. (AR at 13.) The ALJ also found that Ms. Hayes has sleep apnea, but he did not consider it to be a severe impairment because it "responds well to treatment." (AR at 18.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hayes did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[2] (AR at 18.)

At step four, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Hayes had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, but that she was "limited to simple, repetitive tasks." (AR at 20.) In reaching this determination, the ALJ found that Ms. Hayes's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to [produce] some of her symptoms." (AR at 25.) In evaluating the severity of her limitations, however, the ALJ found Ms. Hayes's testimony "not credible to establish disability." (AR at 23.) He discounted the testimony submitted by Ms. Hayes's husband, mother, friend, and mental health counselor "for the same reasons." (Id. ) The ALJ acknowledged that Ms. Hayes was not capable of returning to her previous employment as a registered nurse due to her limitations. (AR at 28.)

Proceeding to step five, the ALJ evaluated Ms. Hayes's "age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, " and found that there are "jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform." (Id. ). To arrive at this conclusion, the ALJ looked to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("Tables") found at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. The ALJ ultimately concluded that Ms. Hayes was "not disabled." (AR at 31.)

After the Social Security Administration's Appeals Council declined review (AR at 1), the ALJ's determination became the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Hayes now asks this court to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Compl. (Dkt. # 1).)


A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court reviews the Commissioner's decision to determine whether it is free from legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). "Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). The court must review the "record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. (internal citations and quotations marks omitted). "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and for resolving ambiguities." Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). A court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010 (citing Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039), and will uphold the Commissioner's decision when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). The court may "review only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely." Id. (citing Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003)).

B. Ms. Hayes's Arguments

Ms. Hayes asks this court to reverse the determination of the ALJ for three primary reasons. First, Ms. Hayes argues that the ALJ erred in evaluating her own credibility and that of her lay witnesses. ( See Op. Brief at 11-19.) Second, she contends that the ALJ evaluated the medical source opinions incorrectly. ( See id. at 2-11.) Finally, Ms. Hayes complains that the ALJ should have found that her sleep apnea was a severe impairment at step two of the five-step evaluation and continued to consider it throughout the analysis. ( See Op. Brief at 19.) The court will address each of these arguments in turn.

1. The ALJ's Credibility Evaluation

Ms. Hayes complains that the ALJ came to erroneous conclusions about her own credibility and that of her lay witnesses. (Op. Brief at 11-19.) Before concluding that a claimant's subjective pain or symptom testimony is not credible, an ALJ must make two determinations: "First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has presented objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged." Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1102 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1036 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Second, if the claimant has produced that evidence, and the ALJ has not determined that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must provide specific, clear and convincing reasons for' rejecting the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of the claimant's symptoms." Id. (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996)).

As to the first inquiry, the ALJ easily found that Ms. Hayes's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to [produce] some of her symptoms" (AR at 25), and he did not make any explicit finding that she was malingering. As to the second inquiry, however, the ALJ declared that "[t]he medical records do not support the level of limitation reported by [Ms. Hayes] and her witnesses." (Id. ) He further stated that Ms. Hayes "does not have impairments that are easily observed and there are few objective findings in the ...

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