United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma
REDITHA D. BRENNEMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER ON SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY
RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Reditha D. Brenneman, 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 her application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act.
Dkt. 1. This matter has been fully briefed and, after
reviewing the record in its entirety, the Court REVERSES the
Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS this case for
further administrative proceedings.
2011, Ms. Brenneman filed an application for DIB alleging
disability commencing on June 1, 2011. Tr. 22, 272. The
application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.
Tr. 162-168, 170-174. A hearing was held before
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Riley Atkins on January 2,
2013. Tr. 75-103. ALJ Atkins issued a decision on January 17,
2013, denying Ms. Brenneman's claim. Tr. 132-153. Ms.
Brenneman sought review of that decision and on May 2, 2014,
the Appeals Council issued an order vacating the hearing
decision of January 17, 2013, and remanding the case back to
the ALJ. Tr. 154-159. A subsequent hearing was held before
ALJ Atkins on November 24, 2014. Tr. 47-73. Ms. Brenneman was
represented by counsel, Teal Parham. Id. Jenipher
Gaffney, a vocational expert (VE), also testified at the
hearing. Id. On December 22, 2014, ALJ Atkins issued
an unfavorable decision. Tr. 22-40. The Appeals Council
denied review, and the ALJ's decision became final. Tr.
1-6. Ms. Brenneman then timely filed this judicial action.
to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
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 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.
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
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
claimant, Ms. Brenneman 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) (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
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.
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.
Tackett, at 1098-99. At step five, the burden shifts
to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to
be “disabled” or “not disabled” at
any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need
to consider subsequent steps. Id.; 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step one asks whether the
claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful
activity” (SGA). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b),
416.920(b). If she is, disability benefits are denied.
Id. 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c),
416.920(c). If the claimant does not have such impairments,
she is not disabled. Id. 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 twelve-month duration is disabled. Id.
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 she can still perform that
work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 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. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g);
Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099, 1100. If the claimant is
able to perform other work, then she is not disabled; if the
opposite is true, she is disabled and benefits may be
the five-step disability evaluation process,  the ALJ found
that Ms. Brenneman last met the insured status requirements
of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2013. Tr. 25. The
ALJ further found that:
Step one: Ms. Brenneman did not engage in substantial gainful
activity from June 1, 2011, the alleged onset date, through
her date last insured of December 31, 2013.
Step two: Through the date last insured, Ms. Brenneman had
the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, history of
Meniere's disease (controlled), mild obstructive
pulmonary disease, and obesity.
Step three: Through the date last insured, these impairments
did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed
Residual Functional Capacity: Through the date last insured,
Ms. Brenneman had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to
perform a mixture of sedentary and light work as defined in
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) except she can
occasionally lift and/or carry 20 pounds and frequently lift
and/or carry 10 pounds. She should not be required to stand
and/or walk for more than two hours in an eight-hour workday.
She has no specific sitting limitations. The standing,
walking, and sitting occurs with normal breaks during an
eight-hour day. She can occasionally climb stairs or ramps,
but she should not be required to engage in other climbing.
She should avoid exposure to environmental irritants, such as
noxious gases and fumes, due to a breathing disorder. She
should avoid serious workplace hazards, i.e. working around
unprotected heights or dangerous machinery with moving parts.
She can work in a unskilled or low semiskilled work
Step four: Through the date last insured, Ms. Brenneman could
not perform past relevant work as a caregiver.
Step five: Through the date last insured, as there were other
jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national
economy that Ms. Brenneman could perform, including ...