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Johanson v. Colvin

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

June 2, 2015

KALEB S. JOHANSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT’S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

Karen L. Strombom United States Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant’s denial of his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the parties’ briefs and the remaining record, the Court hereby finds that for the reasons set forth below, defendant’s decision to deny benefits should be reversed and this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 4, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging disability as of March 13, 1993. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (“AR”) 12. That application was denied upon initial administrative review on August 26, 2011, and on reconsideration on November 14, 2011. See Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 24, 2013, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did plaintiff’s mother and a vocational expert. See AR 29-56.

In a decision dated February 7, 2013, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 9-28. Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision was denied by the Appeals Council on June 27, 2014, making that decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). See AR 1-7; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On September 3, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decision. See Dkt. 3. The administrative record was filed with the Court on January 9, 2015. See Dkt. 9. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court’s review.

Plaintiff argues defendant’s decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits, or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in evaluating the medical evidence in the record; (2) in discounting plaintiff’s credibility; (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, the Court agrees the ALJ erred in rejecting the lay witness evidence in the record – and thus in assessing plaintiff’s RFC and in finding him to be capable of performing other jobs – and therefore in determining plaintiff to be not disabled. Also for the reasons set forth below, however, while defendant’s decision to deny benefits should be reversed on this basis, this matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings.

DISCUSSION

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); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) (“A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.”) (citing Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

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) (“Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.”) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[1]

I. 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, 694 F.2d at 642.

In addition to testifying at the hearing, plaintiff’s mother Shawna Jeanne Kyler provided a function report and an additional written statement. Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly evaluate this lay witness evidence. The Court agrees. With respect to Ms. Kyler’s testimony, the ALJ found:

The claimant’s mother testified she tries to help [plaintiff] by teaching him how to take care of simple things by himself. He participated in special education during school. He does not understand time or money. He avoids reading and writing. Medication to treat hyperactivity calms the claimant, allowing improved focus. He functions better with this medication. He performs whatever tasks his mother instructs him to do. He watches his cousins repair motorcycles. She cannot give him multiple tasks to perform. He must do one task at a time. This testimony is given some weight because it is generally consistent with the record. It shows the claimant experiences ...

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