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Williams v. Berryhill

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

May 11, 2017

KRISTY LENA WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1], Defendant.

          ORDER RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY APPEAL

          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Kristy Lena Williams proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1985.[2] She graduated from high school and has some college education as well as training as an emergency medical technician, and has worked as an in-home caregiver, firefighter, emergency medical technician, restaurant cook/server, and bartender. (AR 312.)

         Plaintiff protectively applied for DIB and SSI on September 11, 2012. (AR 275-92.) That application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 164-78, 181-95.)

         On January 12, 2015, ALJ Robert F. Campbell held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 48-81.) On March 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 19-40.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 11, 2016 (AR 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (AR 21.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's polysubstance abuse (of cannabis, methamphetamine, and alcohol), major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. (AR 22-27.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, including the substance abuse disorders, met the criteria of Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09. (AR 28-29.)

         The ALJ then separated out the effects of Plaintiff's substance abuse, and found that if Plaintiff stopped substance use, she would still have severe impairments, but they would not meet or equal a listed impairment. (AR 29-30.) The ALJ next assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC), assuming she stopped using substances, to determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels, with the following non-exertional limitations: she is limited to simple, routine work. She can have occasional superficial contact with a supervisor for daily quality checks on work, and can have superficial contact with coworkers, but no teamwork or collaboration with them. She cannot have public contact. (AR 30.) With that assessment, the ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped using substances, she would be unable to perform past relevant work. (AR 38-39.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. The ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped using substances, she could transition to other representative occupations, including janitor and laundry worker. (AR 39-40.)

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) failing to account for all limitations indicated by the State agency consultants, whose opinions were purportedly credited; (2) discounting the opinions of three psychologists; (3) discounting Plaintiff's subjective testimony; and (4) failing to include all RFC assessment limitations in the VE hypothetical. The ...


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