United States District Court, E.D. Washington
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
filed this action on March 24, 2016. ECF No. 1.
“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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
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
2. Did the ALJ commit reversible error by disregarding
Plaintiff's VA disability rating?
3. Did the ALJ commit reversible error by dismissing