United States District Court, W.D. Washington
DAWN A. CARTER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
P. DONOHUE United States Magistrate Judge
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
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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.
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.
to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to
42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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
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
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).
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). 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.
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
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
AR at 16-28.