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Osborne v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 30, 2018




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 13, 14. Attorney Jeffrey Schwab represents Michaelle Marie Osborne (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Ryan Lu represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS, IN PART, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REMANDS the matter to the Commissioner for additional proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on March 14, 2014, and February 13, 2014, respectively, alleging disability since July 1, 2012, due to anxiety, depression, fearfulness, PTSD, panic attacks, fatigue and body aches. Tr. 367, 374, 443. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mark Kim held hearings on July 27, 2016, Tr. 43-70, and November 1, 2016, Tr. 71-109, and issued an unfavorable decision on November 22, 2016, Tr. 21-32. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 21, 2017. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's November 2016 decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on April 20, 2017. ECF No. 1, 4.


         Plaintiff was born on June 1, 1967, and was 45 years old on the alleged onset date, July 1, 2012. Tr. 367, 374. Plaintiff earned a GED and has completed some college. Tr. 75-76. She has past work as a caregiver, a unit clerk and a cashier. Tr. 97, 101-102. Plaintiff stated she believed she could no longer work due to her physical issues and inability to stay focused. Tr. 93.

         Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing on November 1, 2016, that she had nerve issues with her legs (beginning in September 2016), pain in her right shoulder, problems with her neck causing tingling and reduced strength in her arms/hands (brachial plexus), and heart issues/chest pain. Tr. 78-81. Plaintiff also described anxiety/PTSD, Tr. 83-86, 94, migraine headaches, Tr. 88, tremors, Tr. 90-91, and difficulty with concentration, Tr. 92.

         Plaintiff has a long history of alcohol-related problems. Plaintiff testified she had been sober since September 2016 and had a six-month period of sobriety prior to the September relapse. Tr. 77-78.


         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable interpretation of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence 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). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988).


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-1099. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work; and (2) specific jobs which the claimant can perform exist in the national economy. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of “disabled” is made. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On November 22, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. Tr. 23.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cervical spine degenerative disk disease, right brachial plexopathy, right shoulder impingement, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol dependence. Tr. 23.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 24.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and found Plaintiff could perform light exertion work, with the following nonexertional limitations: she should never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds or crawl; she can occasionally push and pull with her bilateral upper extremities, but she should never reach overhead with her dominant right upper extremity and only occasionally reach overhead with her non-dominant left upper extremity; she can occasionally reach in all other directions with the bilateral upper extremities; she can frequently handle, finger, and feel with her dominant right hand; she should avoid all exposure to excessive vibrations and hazards like moving machinery and unprotected heights; she can perform simple, routine tasks in a low stress environment, defined as only occasional changes; and she can have occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. Tr. 25-26.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a ...

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