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Battles v. Berryhill

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

June 21, 2017

MARGARITA M. BATTLES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

          J. Richard Creatura United States Magistrate Judge.

         This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and Local Magistrate Judge Rule MJR 13 (see also Notice of Initial Assignment to a U.S. Magistrate Judge and Consent Form, Dkt. 5; Consent to Proceed Before a United States Magistrate Judge, Dkt. 6). This matter has been fully briefed (see Dkt. 13, 14, 15).

         After considering and reviewing the record, the Court concludes that the ALJ erred by failing her duty to develop the record. Although plaintiff testified that she was involuntarily committed and received inpatient mental health treatment from May until August, 2014, the ALJ appears to have assumed that plaintiff only received inpatient mental health treatment for up to 14 days. See AR. 21. Furthermore, the ALJ did not develop the record by obtaining plaintiff's treatment records from this involuntary inpatient mental health treatment. As plaintiff was not represented by counsel at her Administrative hearing, the ALJ had a special duty “to assure that the claimant's interests are considered.'” Tonapetyan v. Halter, 242 F.3d 1144, 1150 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1288 (9th Cir. 1996)). This, the ALJ did not do.

         Therefore, the Court concludes that this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Acting Commissioner for further consideration consistent with this order.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, MARGARITA M. BATTLES, was born in 1960 and was 52 years old on the alleged date of disability onset of May 1, 2012. See AR. 231-32, 247-52. Plaintiff has a GED. AR. 84. Plaintiff has some work history as a debt collector, accounting clerk, loan processor, administrative clerk and childcare attendant. AR. 73-75, 81-82, 265-75.

         According to the ALJ, plaintiff has at least the severe impairments of “presumed osteoarthritis, depressive disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), anxiety disorder NOS, and marijuana abuse (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).” AR. 16.

         At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was living with her boyfriend at his brother's home. AR. 67.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423 (Title II) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a) (Title XVI) of the Social Security Act were denied initially and following reconsideration. See AR. 117, 118.

         Plaintiff's requested hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Ruperta Alexis (“the ALJ”) on August 21, 2014. See AR. 54-95. On January 5, 2015, the ALJ issued a written decision in which the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled pursuant to the Social Security Act. See AR. 7-30. (There was a prior unappealed ALJ decision in 2012 finding plaintiff not disabled. See AR. 95-116.)

         In plaintiff's Opening Brief, plaintiff raises the following issues: (1) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence, and failed to fully and fairly develop the record on this issue; (2) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated plaintiff's testimony, and failed to fully and fairly develop the record on this issue; (3) Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the lay evidence; and (4) Whether the ALJ properly assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and erred by basing her step five finding on her erroneous RFC assessment. See Dkt. 13, p. 1.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if 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 n.1 ...


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