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Shreves v. Berryhill

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

September 18, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Barbara Shreves 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) 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.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1969.[1] She has an eleventh-grade education and GED, and has worked as a cashier and in-home caregiver. (AR 35-36, 204.)

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in November 2013. (AR 172-78.) That application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 96-98, 107-13.)

         On March 12, 2015, ALJ Kelly Wilson held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 30-72.) On July 31, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 12-25.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 10, 2017 (AR 1-7), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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 had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 15, 2013, the amended alleged onset date. (AR 14.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes mellitus, neuropathy, morbid obesity, and post-traumatic stress disorder. (Id.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 15-16.)

         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 Plaintiff capable of performing a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). She can lift/carry 25 pounds occasionally and 20 pounds frequently. She can stand/walk for six hours and sit for six hours, out of an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards, such as moving machinery and unprotected heights. She should have close access to a bathroom. She can have superficial contact with the public. (AR 16.) With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform her past relevant work. (AR 24.)

         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. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing other representative occupations, including production assembler; assembler, electrical; and bottle packer. (AR 24-25.)

         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 arguesthe ALJ erred in (1) failing to include lumbar strain as a severe impairment at step two; and (2) purporting to credit the opinion of examining physician James Symonds, M.D., but failing to account for all of the limitations he indicated. The Commissioner argues that if the ALJ erred at step two, it was harmless, and concedes that the ALJ erred in assessing Dr. Symonds' opinion, ...

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