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Spears v. Berryhill

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

July 9, 2018

SHELLY JEAN SPEARS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING THE CASE FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          RICHARD A. JONES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Shelly Jean Spears, seeks review of the denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in evaluating two medical opinions and her own testimony, and in applying the Medical-Vocational rules. Dkt. 11 at 1. As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is currently 54 years old, has a high school education and has worked as a waitress, child monitor, and newspaper carrier. Tr. 31-32. On April 17, 2014, plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of October 15, 2011. Tr. 17. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on January 19, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 17-33.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date, April 17, 2014.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with stenosis and radiculopathy, lumbar spondylosis, peripheral neuropathy, obesity, possible conversion reaction, anxiety, personality disorder, and major depressive disorder.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work, further limited to standing or walking two hours at a time or four hours total in a workday and sitting two hours at a time; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; only occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, or climbing ramps or stairs; no concentrated exposure to extreme cold, or vibration. Plaintiff is further limited to low stress work, meaning no hazards; simple, routine tasks; no more than occasional, superficial interaction; adaptation to no more than simple or minor changes in the work setting or work process.
Step four: Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform, plaintiff is not disabled.

Tr. 19-33. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1.[3]

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by failing to find the Medical-Vocational rules mandated a finding of disability, discounting her testimony, and giving little weight to the opinions of two examining medical sources.

         A. Medical-Vocational Rules

         Plaintiff argues that the limitation to four hours of standing or walking transforms her RFC from light to sedentary. She argues the ALJ thus erred in using the Medical-Vocational rules only as a “framework” (see Tr. 32) instead of finding that they direct a conclusion of disability. Dkt. 11 at 11-12.

         If one of the Medical-Vocational rules matches the claimant's situation precisely, that rule “directs a conclusion as to whether the individual is or is not disabled.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 200.00(a). If no rule matches precisely, then the rules can still be used as a framework. Id. Plaintiff cites to agency guidelines that only apply when the Medical-Vocational rules are merely a framework. See POMS DI 25025.015 (guiding ALJ in making adjudicative judgments when a claimant's RFC falls between two exertional levels); SSR 83-14, available at 1983 WL 31254, *4 (guiding ALJ when RFC combines ...


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