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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

October 11, 2017

DANIEL L. SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Daniel L. Smith appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) which denied his 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 Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.


         At the time of the administrative hearing, plaintiff was a twenty-four year old man with a high school education. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 50, 151. Plaintiff testified that he was in special education courses in school. AR at 50. Plaintiff received SSI disability benefits as a child, which ceased when he turned eighteen. Dkt. 12 at 2. After high school, he enrolled with the Washington State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (“DVR”), which placed him in three jobs: Walmart courtesy associate, shopping cart wrangler, and housekeeper. These work attempts were all ultimately unsuccessful. AR at 31. In November 2013, DVR determined that plaintiff is “unemployable in competitive employment” due to the combination of his physical impairments and intellectual limitations, including “the inability to do any standing and [his] serious limitations in reading, spelling and math[.]” AR at 420. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2013 performing janitorial duties at a mall in Federal Way. AR at 51.[1]

         On October 25, 2013, plaintiff filed a claim for SSI payments and DIB, alleging an onset date of July 10, 2012. AR at 16, 294-311.[2] Plaintiff asserts that he is disabled due to an intellectual disorder, bilateral club feet, severe generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, learning disorder, left ankle derangement, left pes cavus, obesity, and major depressive disorder. AR at 19, 670.

         The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 132, 150-52, 169. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on May 20, 2015. AR at 44-91. On August 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on his finding that plaintiff could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 13-33. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-7, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On April 26, 2017, plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 3.


         Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         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, 427 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).


         As the claimant, Mr. Smith bears the burden of proving that he 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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).[3] If he is, disability benefits are denied. If he is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that he has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, he 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 twelvemonth 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 he can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he 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 C.F.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.


         On August 27, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding the following:

1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2014.
2. Born on XXXXX, 1990, the claimant had not attained age 22 as of July 10, 2012, the alleged onset date.[4]
3. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 10, 2012, the alleged onset date.
4. Prior to attaining age 22, and until the present day, the claimant had and has the following severe impairments: generalized anxiety disorder, mild intellectual disability, history of ADHD, history of specific learning disability, adjustment disorder, learning disorder, rule out cognitive disorder, bilateral club feet, left ankle derangement, left pes cavus, and obesity.
5. Prior to attaining age 22, and until the present day, the claimant did not and does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
6. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, prior to attaining age 22 and until the present day, the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work, as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). and 416.967(b)., that does not require standing or walking more than 30 minutes at a time or more than two hours total during a workday; that does not require more than occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, or climbing of ramps or stairs; that does not require more than frequent kneeling or crawling; that does not require climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and that is low stress meaning it does not require exposure to hazards such as open machinery or unprotected heights, it does not require concentrated exposure to vibration, it consists of simple, routine tasks, and it does not require more than occasional adaption to changes.
7. The claimant has no past relevant work.
8. The claimant was born on XXXXX, 1990 and was 21 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date.
9. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
10. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work.
11. Prior to attaining age 22, and until the present day, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.
12. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 10, 2012, through ...

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