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Blacktongue v. Colvin

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

January 24, 2017

AMOR J. BLACKTONGUE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER ON SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY

          RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff, Amor J. Blacktongue, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This matter has been fully briefed and, after reviewing the record in its entirety, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS the matter for an award of benefits under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. BACKGROUND

         On March 31, 2011, Mr. Blacktongue filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and on July 13, 2011, filed an application for Supplement Security Income (SSI). Tr. 26, 132-43, 323-31. Both applications alleged disability commencing on June 5, 2009. Id. Mr. Blacktongue's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 26. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Glenn G. Meyers on September 30, 2014. Tr. 415-51. Mr. Blacktongue was represented by counsel, Steven Knaphus.[1] Id. Maggie Dillon, a vocational expert, also testified at the hearing. Id. On October 23, 2014, Judge Meyers issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 26-40. On March 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, and the ALJ's decision became final. Tr. 1-4. Mr. Blacktongue then timely filed this judicial action.

         III. JURISDICTION

         Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.

         The Court may direct an award of benefits where “the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose.” McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996)). The Court may find that this occurs when:

(1) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the claimant's evidence; (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made; and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled if he considered the claimant's evidence.

Id. at 1076-77; see also Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2000) (noting that erroneously rejected evidence may be credited when all three elements are met).

         V. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         As the claimant, Mr. Blacktongue bears the burden of proving that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         The Commissioner has established a five step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to be disabled at any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need to consider subsequent steps. Step one asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[2] If he is, disability benefits are denied. If he is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that he has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step ...


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