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Reed v. Berryhill

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

September 1, 2017

TERI REED, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY APPEAL

          Mary Alice Theiler, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Teri Reed 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 found her eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as of January 1, 2014, but not disabled before, 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, 1958.[1] She has a college degree and master's degree, and worked as a business consultant until November 2007. (AR 450, 767.)

         Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB in August 2011. (AR 382-90.) Her date last insured (DLI) is December 31, 2011. (AR 445.) Those applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 252-60, 262-68.)

         On August 13, 2013, ALJ M.J. Adams held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff, Plaintiff's partner, and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 33-78.) On August 29, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 217-26.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review on June 27, 2014, and remanded the case back to the ALJ for further proceedings. (AR 234-39.)

         ALJ Adams held additional hearings on December 10, 2014, and May 12, 2015, taking testimony from Plaintiff, Plaintiff's treating neurologist, a medical expert, and a VE. (AR 71-147.) On June 15, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's DIB application, and granting her SSI application as of January 1, 2014. (AR 16-29.) The Appeals Council denied review on October 27, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 1-6.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

         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 engaged in substantial gainful activity (“SGA”) through November 15, 2007, and thus found her not disabled at step one through that date. (AR 18.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found that since November 16, 2007, Plaintiff's seizure disorder, status post laser ablation; obesity; a cognitive disorder; and affective disorders were severe. (AR 18-19.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff met a listing beginning on January 1, 2014, but not from November 16, 2007, to December 31, 2013. (AR 19-20.)

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found that from November 16, 2007, until she became disabled on January 1, 2014, Plaintiff was capable of performing medium work, with additional limitations. She could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She could not drive, operate hazardous machinery, or work at unprotected heights. She could perform simple, routine tasks, and follow short, simple instructions. She could do work that needed little or no judgment and she could perform simple duties that could be learned on the job in less than 30 days. She could respond appropriately to supervision and coworkers. She could deal with occasional changes in the work environment. She had no difficulty dealing with the general public. (AR 20-21.) With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not able to perform her past relevant work. (AR 27.)

         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. With the VE's assistance, the ALJ found that before Plaintiff became disabled on January 1, 2014, she was capable of performing other representative occupations, including kitchen helper, bagger, and dining room attendant. (AR 27-28.)

         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) assessing several medical opinions; (2) discounting her credibility; and (3) discounting lay statements. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision ...


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