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Dufresne v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

August 17, 2017

JOSEPH DUFRESNE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING TO THE COMMISSIONER

          JAMES P. DONOHUE, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Joseph Dufresne appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) which denied his 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 REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time of the administrative hearing, plaintiff was a forty-year old man with a high school education and one year of college. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 46. His past work experience includes employment as an office worker for a check guaranty company, a sweeper at a plant processing place, and labor positions through temporary agencies. AR at 47-49, 60-61. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed by temporary agencies in 2013. AR at 51, 61.

         On February 3, 2014, plaintiff filed a claim for SSI payments, alleging an onset date of June 1, 2009. AR at 167-72. Plaintiff asserts that he is disabled due to cellulitis of the right leg, tibia fibula surgery, compartment syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, irritable bowel syndrome, blood clots, hypertension, psoriasis, bipolar disorder, autism, persistent depressive disorder, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder, and Tourette's Syndrome. AR at 42-43, 55, 75.

         The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 74-102. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on January 12, 2016. AR at 38-73. On February 5, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on his finding that plaintiff could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 15-33. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-6, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On February 14, 2017, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 3.

         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. Dufresne 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).[1] 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. §§ 404.1520(c), 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. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required twelve-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. §§ 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 he can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he 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 Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded.

         V. DECISION BELOW

         On February 5, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding the following:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 3, 2014, the application date.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”); major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; Tourette's syndrome; obesity; and right foot and ankle pain secondary to compartment syndrome.
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 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
4. After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except the claimant should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, but he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently balance; he is limited to occasional exposure to temperature extremes, to humidity, and to pulmonary irritants such as dust, fumes, odors, gases, and poor ventilation; he is limited to occasional exposure to hazardous working conditions such as proximity to unprotected heights and moving machinery; the claimant is capable of understanding, recalling and carrying out simple tasks and instructions as well as routine and familiar semi-complex tasks, but would have difficulty with recall and performance of ...

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