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Carter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

September 18, 2017

DAWN A. CARTER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES P. DONOHUE United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Dawn A. Carter appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") that denied her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33 and 1381-83f, after a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). For the reasons set forth below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this matter for additional administrative proceedings.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff is a 47-year-old woman with a 10th-grade education (including special education). Administrative Record ("AR") at 250. Her past work experience includes employment as a fast-food server/cleaner/dishwasher/cook and grocery stocker. AR at 43, 250. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in July 2013. AR at 250.

         In September 2013, Plaintiff applied for SSI and DIB, alleging an onset date of July 4, 2013. AR at 221-29. Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled due to post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), asthma, arthritis, anxiety, and depression. AR at 249.

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs claims initially and on reconsideration. AR at 142-45, 147-57. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on March 16, 2015. AR at 34-81. On August 28, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits, finding that Plaintiff could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 14-28. After reviewing additional evidence, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. AR at 1-7. On March 14, 2017, Plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 1, 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, Ml 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, Ms. Carter bears the burden of proving that she 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), l382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work, and cannot, considering her 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 she is, disability benefits are denied. If she is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that she has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, she 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 she can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she 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 CF.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 August 28, 2015, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2017.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 4, 2013, the alleged onset date.
3. The claimant's affective disorder, anxiety disorder, migraines, and morbid obesity were severe impairments.
4. 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 CF.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. The claimant has the RFC to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CF.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). The claimant can lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She can stand/walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday and sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs. She can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibrations, noise, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and hazards. The claimant can perform simple, routine tasks and detailed tasks, but would have difficulty performing complex tasks consistently. She can have superficial contact with the public in that she can be around the public and interact with them briefly, but she should not do any customer service or sales jobs. She can work in proximity to co-workers and interact briefly, but would do better in solitary work tasks. Her work settings should be routine and predictable and only require occasional adaption to changes.
6. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform.
8. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from July 4, 2013, through the date of the decision.

AR at 16-28.

         VI. ...


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