United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle
MOLLY A. MCWHORTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR AN AWARD OF
S. Lasnik United States District Judge.
Molly A. McWhorter appeals the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”), which denied her application
for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under
Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§
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.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
is a 38-year-old woman with one year of college education.
Administrative Record (“AR”) at 327, 332. Her
past work experience was in serving, online web teaching,
medical billing for an insurance company, and hotel
housekeeping. AR at 333. Plaintiff was last gainfully
employed in October of 2011. AR at 331.
protectively filed an application for SSI on August 27, 2012.
AR at 20. Plaintiff asserted that she was disabled due to
borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar
disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”). AR at 331.
Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on
reconsideration. AR at 20. Plaintiff requested a hearing,
which took place on January 30, 2014. Id. On
November 10, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
plaintiff was not disabled based on his finding that
plaintiff could perform past relevant work. AR at 20-37.
Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was
denied on June 8, 2016 (AR at 1-7), making the ALJ's
ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner
as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On August
5, 2016, plaintiff timely filed the present action
challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 4.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
claimant, Ms. McWhorter bears the burden of proving that she
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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).
A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments
are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous
work, and cannot, considering her 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).
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. § 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. §
416.920(b). If she is, disability benefits are denied.
If she is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step
two, the claimant must establish that she has one or more
medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments,
that limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments,
she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 416.920(d). A claimant whose
impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the
required 12-month duration requirement is disabled.
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.
§ 416.920(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the
physical and mental demands of the claimant's past
relevant work to determine whether she can still perform that
work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to
perform her past relevant work, she 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. § 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.
November 10, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding the
1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since August 27, 2012, the application date (20
C.F.R. §§ 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: anxiety
disorders, affective disorders, personality disorders, and
history of substance addiction disorders (20 C.F.R. §
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. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: she is capable
of understanding and completing simple routine tasks and
well-learned complex tasks. She would do best working on
single tasks. There should be an emphasis on
occupations/duties dealing with things/objects rather than
people. There should be no contact with the public for work
tasks, but incidental contact with the public is not
precluded. She can have occasional contact with coworkers for
work tasks lasting on the average of 20 minutes or fewer an
occurrence. She can have at least frequent contact with her
supervisor. There should be only occasional changes in the
work environment. There should be a low-stress environment,
defined as no more that occasional decision-making required.
5. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work
as a housekeeper. This work does not require the performance
of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's
residual functional capacity (20 C.F.R. § 416.965).
6. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, since August 27, 2012, the date
the application was ...