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Smith v. Colvin

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

June 4, 2015

KHARISSA SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER ADOPTING IN PART AND REJECTING IN PART REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court on the Report and Recommendation ("R&R") of United States Magistrate Judge James P. Donohue (R&R (Dkt. # 13)), the objection of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") to the R&R (Obj. (Dkt. # 14)), and the response of Plaintiff Kharissa Smith to the Commissioner's objection (Resp. (Dkt. # 15)). The court has carefully reviewed the foregoing, all other relevant documents, and the governing law. Being fully advised, the court ADOPTS in part and REJECTS in part the R&R, REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner, and REMANDS the case for further administrative proceedings.

II. BACKGROUND

Ms. Smith is a 32-year-old veteran, who was deployed to Afghanistan from March 2004 to March 2005, and to Iraq from September 2009 to November 2009. She served as an intelligence analyst and a "human intelligence collector" or interrogator. Upon her return from her deployment in Iraq, she remained on active duty in the supportive environment of the "Warrior Transition Battalion." She was subsequently medically discharged from the military in February 2012.

On March 1, 2013, Ms. Smith applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), alleging an onset date of February 27, 2012. On March 13, 2014, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") issued a decision finding Ms. Smith not disabled and denying her benefits. The ALJ found that Ms. Smith could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Ms. Smith appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), which denied her appeal, rendering the ALJ's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

On June 17, 2014, Ms. Smith timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. ( See Compl. (Dkt. # 1).) Magistrate Judge Donohue issued an R&R reversing the ALJ's decision and remanding the action for an award of benefits to Ms. Smith. ( See generally R&R.) The Commissioner timely filed an objection to the R&R. ( See Obj.) The Commissioner's only objection concerned Magistrate Judge Donohue's remand for an award of benefits under the "credit-as-true" rule. (Id. at 2-6.) The Commissioner argues that the matter should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. (Id. ) Ms. Smith filed a response urging the court to reject the Commissioner's objection and adopt the R&R in total. ( See generally Resp.) The court now considers Magistrate Judge Donohue's R&R.

III. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

A district court has jurisdiction to review a Magistrate Judge's R&R on dispositive matters. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). "The district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to." Id. "A judge of the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court reviews de novo those portions of the R&R to which specific written objection is made. United States v. Reyna-Tapia, 328 F.3d 1114, 1121 (9th Cir. 2003) (en banc). "The statute makes it clear that the district judge must review the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations de novo if objection is made, but not otherwise." Id.

B. Remand

The sole objection asserted by the Commissioner was Magistrate Judge Donohue's recommendation that this matter be remanded for an award of benefits rather than for further administrative proceedings. ( See generally Obj.) The ordinary remand rule provides that when "the record before the agency does not support the agency action, ... the agency has not considered all relevant factors, or... the reviewing court simply cannot evaluate the challenged agency action on the basis of the record before it, the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation." Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1099 (9th Cir.2014). This rule applies equally in SSA cases. Id. at 1099.

Under the Social Security Act, however, Congress has granted courts some additional flexibility "to affirm, modify, or reverse a decision by the Commissioner with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.'" Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1019 (9th Cir. 2014) (emphasis in original) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); see also Treichler, 775 F.3d at 1099. Thus, although "the proper course" when the SSA errs in considering a claimant's application is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation "except in rare circumstances, " Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004), courts may remand with instructions to calculate and award benefits when it is clear from the record that an SSA claimant is entitled to benefits, Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1019.

The Ninth Circuit has "devised a three-part credit-as-true standard, each part of which must be satisfied in order for a court to remand to an ALJ with instructions to calculate and award benefits: (1) the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose; (2) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion; and (3) if the improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled on remand." Id. at 1020.[1] The credit-as-true doctrine, however, allows "flexibility" which "is properly understood as requiring courts to remand for further proceedings when, even though all conditions of the credit-as-true rule are satisfied, an evaluation of the record as a whole creates serious doubt that a claimant is, in fact, disabled." Id. at 1021. Even when the circumstances are present to remand for benefits, "[t]he decision whether to remand a case for additional evidence or simply to award benefits is in [the court's] discretion." Treichler. 775 F.3d ...


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