United States District Court, Western District of Washington, Seattle
JAMES L. ROBART United States District Judge
Plaintiff Aram Mkrtchyan appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“the Commissioner”), which granted in part his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83f, after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Specifically, Mr. Mkrtchyan appeals the Commissioner’s determination that he was disabled as of May 1, 2012, rather than as of February 1, 2011. Having considered the parties’ briefs, the administrative record (“AR”), and the relevant law, and being fully advised, the court REVERSES the Commissioner’s final decision and REMANDS this action to the Commissioner for further administrative proceedings.
The facts of the case are set forth in the ALJ’s decision (AR (Dkt. # 15) at 18-29), the administrative hearing transcript (AR at 36-74), and the briefs of the parties (Op. Brief (Dkt. # 17); Resp. (Dkt. # 18); Reply (Dkt. # 19)). They are only briefly summarized here.
Mr. Mkrtchyan filed applications for DIB and SSI on March 14 and 16, 2011, respectively. (AR at 18.) He alleged disability beginning February 1, 2011, primarily as a result of chronic back pain and a variety of mental health problems. (AR at 18, 21, 24, 247-48.) The Social Security Administration denied his application initially and on reconsideration. (AR at 18.) Mr. Mkrtchyan filed a request for hearing, and a hearing was held before an ALJ on August 16, 2012. (AR at 18, 29.) In a written decision dated March 18, 2013, the ALJ granted in part and denied in part Mr. Mkrtchyan’s claim. (AR at 29.) The Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council denied Mr. Mkrtchyan’s request for review on May 29, 2014. (AR at 1-6.) This appeal followed. (See Compl. (Dkt. # 3).)
In rendering his written decision, the ALJ followed the Social Security Administration’s five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Mkrtchyan had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) since the alleged onset date of his disability. (AR at 20.) At step two, he found that since the alleged onset date Mr. Mkrtchyan has had the severe impairments of lumbar degenerative disc disease, left knee degenerative joint disease, anxiety disorder, affective disorder, and alcohol and marijuana abuse. (AR at 21.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Mr. Mkrtchyan has not had an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (AR at 22.)
At step four, the ALJ determined that prior to May 1, 2012, Mr. Mkrtchyan had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, provided he undertook only simple, repetitive tasks, had no contact with the general public, and had only occasional contact with supervisors and coworkers. (AR at 23.) In reaching this determination, the ALJ found that Mr. Mkrtchyan’s “medically determinable impairments could possibly cause the alleged symptoms.” (AR at 24.) Turning to the severity and limiting effects of those symptoms, however, the ALJ found Mr. Mkrtchyan’s claims “not entirely credible.” (Id.) The ALJ instead determined that the “objective medical evidence shows that the claimant’s physical impairments cause some functional limitations but are not disabling.” (Id.) In light of this conclusion, the ALJ found that up to May 1, 2012, Mr. Mkrtchyan could perform his past relevant work as a gluer and was therefore not disabled. (AR at 27-28.)
The ALJ nevertheless concluded that as of May 1, 2012, Mr. Mkrtchyan had only the RFC to perform sedentary work with the same limitations on type of task and contact with others. (AR at 27.) The ALJ further found that such an RFC precluded Mr. Mkrtchyan from performing any of his past relevant work, and that Mr. Mkrtchyan could not adjust to other jobs within that RFC. (AR at 28.) As such, the ALJ determined that Mr. Mkrtchyan could not perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and was therefore disabled as of May 1, 2012. (Id.) Finally, the ALJ found that substance abuse was not a contributing factor material to the determination of Mr. Mkrtchyan’s disability. (AR at 29.)
After the Social Security Administration’s Appeals Council declined review (AR at 1), the ALJ’s determination became the final decision of the Commissioner. Mr. Mkrtchyan now asks this court to review the Commissioner’s decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). (Compl. at 3.)
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); see also 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). “‘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 ...