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Parker v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 19, 2017

ELIZABETH PARKER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION, DENYING DEFENDANT'S SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION, AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          SALVADOR MENDOZA, JR., United States District Judge

         After reviewing the record and relevant authority, the Court is fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ failed to provide specific, clear and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence to reject the medical opinion of Dr. Sanchez and the Veterans Affairs (VA) disability rating. Further, the Court cannot find that these were harmless errors. Accordingly, the Court denies both motions and remands the case for reconsideration consistent with this Order.

         II. BACKGROUND[1]

         At the time of her hearing before the ALJ, Plaintiff was fifty-five years old and lived in Seattle. ECF No. 8-2 at 45, 49. Plaintiff suffers from a number of conditions including major depressive disorder, anxiety related disorders, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Id. at 19. Plaintiff is a veteran of the United States Army and has a degree in journalism from Western Washington University and a paralegal certificate from Edmonds Community College. Id. at 45-46. She has not worked since 2011. Id. at 46.

         Plaintiff filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income on October 10, 2012, alleging that her psychological symptoms became disabling beginning August 28, 2012. Id. at 15. The claims were denied on March 5, 2013, and on reconsideration on May 14, 2013. Id. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing on June 17, 2013, and a hearing before ALJ Larry Kennedy was held February 3, 2014. Id.

         The ALJ issued his decision on April 2, 2014, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time period. Id. at 12. Plaintiff requested review by the Social Security Appeals Counsel. Id. at 10. The Appeals Counsel denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision on January 28, 2016. Id. at 2.

         Plaintiff filed this action on March 24, 2016. ECF No. 1.

         III. DISABILITY DETERMINATION

         A “disability” is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be 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). The decision-maker uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         Step one assesses whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the decision-maker proceeds to step two.

         Step two assesses whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not, the disability claim is denied. If the claimant does, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step three compares the claimant's impairment with a number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404 Subpt. P App. 1, 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment does not, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.

         Step four assesses whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work he has performed in the past by examining the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant is able to perform his or her previous work, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the evaluation proceeds to the fifth step.

         Step five, the final step, assesses whether the claimant can perform other work in the national economy in view of his or her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If the claimant can, the disability claim is denied. If the claimant cannot, the disability claim is granted.

         The burden of proof shifts during this sequential disability analysis. The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show (1) the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity, and (2) that a “significant number of jobs exist in the national economy, ” which the claimant can perform. Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th Cir. 1984). A claimant is disabled only if his impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court must uphold an ALJ's determination that a claimant is not disabled if the ALJ applied the proper legal standards and there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Stone v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 530, 531 (9th Cir.1985)). “Substantial evidence ‘means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. at 1110 (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009)). This must be more than a mere scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance. Id. at 1110-11 (citation omitted). Even where the evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the Court must uphold an ALJ's decision if it is supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Id.; Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984).

         V. DISCUSSION

         The ALJ found that (1) Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 28, 2012; (2) Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder and anxiety related disorders/PTSD; (3) Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any impairment listed by the Commissioner as so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity; (4) Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform work at all exertional capacity with certain nonexertional limitations; and (5) Plaintiff is capable of performing many jobs available in the national economy. ECF No. 8-2 at 19-32.

         Plaintiff challenges only the ALJ's decision at step four that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to work at all exertional levels with certain nonexertional limitations. Specifically, Plaintiff poses the following questions for review:

1. Did the ALJ commit reversible error by disregarding the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and examining physicians?
2. Did the ALJ commit reversible error by disregarding Plaintiff's VA disability rating?
3. Did the ALJ commit reversible error by dismissing Plaintiff's ...

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