United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
DAN E. HEINRICH, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT’S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS
RONALD B. LEIGHTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff’s petition for judicial review of defendant’s denial of his applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. After reviewing the parties’ briefs and the record, the defendant’s decision to deny benefits is reversed and this matter is remanded for further administrative proceedings.
I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On April 26, 2011, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance and SSI benefits, alleging in both that he became disabled on September 1, 2008. Dkt. 16, Administrative Record (“AR”) 26. Those applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on February 22, 2013. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified at the hearing. In a decision dated March 18, 2013, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled.
The Appeals Council denied plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision on May 24, 2014, making that decision the Commissioner of Social Security’s (the “Commissioner”) final decision. See AR 1-5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On July 22, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. The parties have completed their briefing, and this matter is now ripe for the Court’s review.
Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner’s decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, or, in the alternative, for further administrative proceedings. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred: (1) in failing to find several impairments as severe at step two; (2) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (3) in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record; (4) in assessing plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”); and (5) in finding him to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.
For the reasons set forth below, this matter is remanded for further administrative proceedings. The ALJ erred in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record, and thus in assessing plaintiff’s RFC and finding him capable of performing other work, and therefore in determining plaintiff to be not disabled.
The determination of the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the “proper legal standards” have been applied by the Commissioner and the “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence 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) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 (“[T]he Commissioner’s findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”). “The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine” whether the Commissioner’s decision is “supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” the Commissioner’s decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).
A. The ALJ’s Evaluation of the Lay Witness Evidence in the Record
Lay testimony regarding a claimant’s symptoms “is competent evidence that an ALJ must take into account, ” unless the ALJ “expressly determines to disregard such testimony and gives reasons germane to each witness for doing so.” Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 511 (9th Cir. 2001). In rejecting lay testimony, the ALJ need not cite the specific record as long as “arguably germane reasons” for dismissing the testimony are noted, even though the ALJ does “not clearly link his determination to those reasons, ” and substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s decision. Id. at 512. The ALJ also may “draw inferences logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982).
Here, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to properly evaluate the testimony of plaintiff’s mother, Sharin Heinrich. See Dkt. 25, pp. 18-20. In a third-party function report, Ms. Heinrich testified that plaintiff has difficulty with memory, concentration, understanding, fatigue, reading comprehension, following instruction, completing tasks, using his hands, and getting along with others, noting that he has been fired from nearly every job he had for not getting along with coworkers. The ALJ found Ms. Heinrich’s report generally supported his RFC assessment. The ALJ then found:
To the extent that Ms. Heinrich suggests that the claimant’s impairments render him unable to work, I find Ms. Heinrich’s close relationship with the claimant, and a desire to help him, likely influenced her opinion regarding the claimant’s abilities. Finally, the ultimate ...