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White v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 8, 2018

PAULA WHITE, Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 16, 17. Attorney Christopher H. Dellert represents Paula White (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Franco L. Becia represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS 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 an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on April 26, 2013, Tr. 84, alleging disability since February 1, 2012, Tr. 201, due to bipolar disorder, manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety, Tr. 253.[1] The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 106-10, 112-17. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Donna L. Walker held a hearing on May 11, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert, John R. Morse, M.D., psychological expert, Margaret R. Moore, Ph.D., and vocational expert, Polly A. Peterson. Tr. 42-73. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 31, 2016. Tr. 25-35. The Appeals Council denied review on June 13, 2017. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's May 31, 2016 decision 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 August 17, 2017. ECF Nos. 1, 4.


         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties. They are only briefly summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 47 years old at the date of application. Tr. 201. Her highest level of education was one year of college completed in 1993. Tr. 254. Her reported work history includes the jobs of flagger, healthcare worker, line worker, sander, temp worker, and bell ringer. Tr. 254, 265. Plaintiff was working at the time of her application, but reported making changes in her work activity due to her conditions on February 1, 2012. Tr. 253.


         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 Court reviews the ALJ's determinations of law de novo, deferring to a reasonable interpretation of the 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. 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, 1229-30 (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. § 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (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 1098-99. This burden is met once the claimant establishes that physical or mental impairments prevent her from engaging in her previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot do her 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. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (9th Cir. 2004). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of “disabled” is made. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On May 31, 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 engaged in substantial gainful activity for the months of January, February, and March of 2014. Tr. 27. However, the ALJ also found that there had been a continuous twelve month period during which Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and she continued her five-step sequential evaluation. Id.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mood disorder, not otherwise specified; PTSD; personality disorder with cluster B traits; and obesity. Tr. 27.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 28.

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual function capacity and determined she could perform a range of light work with the following limitations:

the ability to lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally (1/3 of the workday); 10 pounds frequently (2/3 of the workday); sit up to 6 hours; stand and/or walk up to 6 hours; unlimited ability to reach in all directions, including overhead; unlimited manipulative abilities; unlimited postural abilities, but should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; unlimited environmental abilities, but should avoid hazardous machinery and heights.
Regarding understanding and memory, the claimant has the ability to remember locations and work-like procedures; understand and remember short and simple instructions. Regarding concentration and persistence, has the ability to carry out short and simple instructions; maintain attention and concentration for periods required between legally required breaks; perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision; make simple work related decisions; complete a normal workday and workweek ...

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