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Spears v. Berryhill

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

February 2, 2017

DAVID L. SPEARS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge

         Plaintiff David L. Spears appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), which denied his applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83f, after a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is hereby REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff is a 51-year-old man with a GED. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 301, 306. His past work experience was as a laborer. AR at 306. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in November of 2008. AR at 305.

         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on August 29, 2012. AR at 11. Plaintiff asserted that he was disabled due to back pain, post-concussion syndrome, bipolar disorder, and dyslexia. AR at 305.

         The Commissioner denied plaintiffs claims initially and on reconsideration. AR at 11. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on February 13, 2014. Id On December 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled based on his finding that plaintiff could perform specific jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 11-22. Plaintiffs request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on March 31, 2016 (AR at 1-6), making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On June 2, 2016, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. No. 3.

         II. 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 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

         III. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         As the claimant, Mr. Spears 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). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment 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.” 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. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to determine whether the impairment meets or equals any of the listed impairments described in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required 12-month duration requirement is disabled. Id.

         When the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the Commissioner must proceed to step four and evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether he can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the opposite is true, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099, 1100. If the Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded.

         IV. DECISION BELOW

         On December 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding the following:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 1, 2008, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: cervical and thoracic spine degenerative disc disease, acromioclavicular separation and surgery, post-concussion syndrome, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and substance disorder (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he is able to frequently push and/or pull, as well as occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity within the weight given. He is able to frequently stoop and occasionally crawl and climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards (dangerous machinery, unprotected heights, etc.), extreme cold, and vibration. Further, he is able to perform simple, routine tasks with customary breaks. He is able to have occasional contact with the public for work tasks with an average occurrence being 15 minutes or less with normal breaks. There should be an ...

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