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Jakobsen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

February 27, 2018

MARIANA MICHELE JAKOBSEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          ROBERT S. LASNIK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Mariana Michele Jakobsen appeals the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83f. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff is a 51-year-old woman with a tenth-grade education. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 408. Her past work experience was as a sorter/pricer, sales clerk, manager of a retail store, child care monitor, and livestock rancher. AR 216, 96.

         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on May 22, 2012, alleging disability as of July 1, 2011. AR 206. She asserted that she was disabled due to a combination of physical and mental impairments, including lumbar spine impairment, bursitis in the hip and knee, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, bipolar II disorder, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. AR 172, 379-81, 407.

         The Commissioner denied plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR 171, 186. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on June 25, 2013. AR 47-102. On July 26, 2013, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Glenn Meyers issued a decision finding that the plaintiff was not disabled because she could perform specific jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR 203-218.

         Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council issued an order vacating the ALJ's decision and remanding the case for further proceedings. AR 224-27. In substance, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to (a) give further consideration to plaintiff's diagnoses of bipolar disorder II, panic disorder with agoraphobia, and somatic dysfunction disorder, (b) further evaluate the opinion of Ellen Walker, Ph.D., that the plaintiff's diagnoses include undifferentiated somatoform disorder, major depressive disorder, recurrent severe panic disorder with agoraphobia, and (c) address a discrepancy between the ALJ's findings regarding residual functional capacity and the vocational evidence presented during the hearing. AR 225-26.

         ALJ Meyers held a second hearing, AR 103-170, and issued an unfavorable decision on June 23, 2015, AR 27-40. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, AR 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). Plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. No. 3.

         II. 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, 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, the Court must uphold the Commissioner's conclusion. Id.

         III. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         The claimant, Ms. Jakobsen, 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). 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 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(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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) (“the Listings”). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the Listings for the required twelve-month duration 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 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.

         IV. DECISION BELOW

         On June 23, 2015, ALJ Meyers issued a decision finding, in relevant part, the following:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 22, 2012, the application date (20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq.).
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; migraines; depressive disorder; somatoform disorder; anxiety disorder; panic disorder; personality disorder (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)).
3. 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 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).
4. The claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(a) including the following limitations. She can perform unskilled, repetitive, routine work. She cannot have contact with the public. She is capable of working in proximity to but not in coordination with co-workers. She can have occasional contact with supervisors. She will be off-task at work up to 10% of the time, but still meet the minimum production requirements of the job. She will be absent from work one time per month.
5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. § 416.965).
6. 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 (20 C.F.R. § 416.969 and § 416.969(a)).
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since May 22, 2012, the date the application was ...

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