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McWhorter v. Berryhill

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

April 27, 2017

MOLLY A. MCWHORTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR AN AWARD OF BENEFITS

          Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff 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.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         The 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.

         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, 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).

         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. § 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).[2] 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. 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. § 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.

         IV. DECISION BELOW

         On November 10, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding the following:

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. § 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. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
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 ...

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