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Laurel v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

August 11, 2017

JOEL PROTACIO LAUREL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          JAMES P. DONOHUE Chief United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Joel Protacio Laurel appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) which denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, after a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time of the administrative hearing, plaintiff was a fifty-nine year old man with a college degree in Industrial Engineering. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 30-31. His past experience includes work as an industrial engineer for Boeing in 2001 and 2007-2010, as well as work for three other companies as a material planner and acquisition analyst. AR at 32-34, 62. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed as an industrial engineer in January 2010, when he was laid off by Boeing. AR at 31.

         On August 19, 2013, plaintiff filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset date of January 11, 2010. AR at 66-68. During the administrative hearing, however, plaintiff amended the alleged onset date to February 7, 2012. AR at 29.[1] Plaintiff asserts that he is disabled due to coronary heart disease, coronary artery bypass, acute gout arthropathy, osteoarthritis ankle/feet, diabetes type 2 uncontrolled, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, albuminuria, carpal tunnel of right wrist, cataract left eye, and deficiency anemia. AR at 67.

         The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 85-87, 90-94. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on June 9, 2015. AR at 26-65. On July 21, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on her finding that plaintiff could perform his past work as an industrial engineer (DOT # 012.167-030, sedentary) and material planner and acquisition analyst (DOT # 012.167-082, sedentary). AR at 9-21. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-4, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On December 26, 2016, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 1.

         II. JURISDICTION

         Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         III. 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.

         The 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 evidence.

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 met).

         IV. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         As the claimant, Mr. Laurel bears the burden of proving that he 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 physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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. §§ 404.1520, 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. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[2] If he is, disability benefits are denied. If he is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that he has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to ...


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