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Hope S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

May 6, 2019

HOPE S., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING FOR ADDITIONAL PROCEEDINGS

          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff brought this matter for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). As explained below, the Court reverses and remands because the ALJ erred by failing to consider Plaintiff's symptom testimony, and because there is not substantial evidence to support the ALJ's determination that there were substantial jobs in the national economy that plaintiff would be able to perform.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 28, 2014, plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2012. Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 16. Her application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff appeared and testified at two hearings before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Id. On May 10, 2017, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled. AR 13.

         The Commissioner employs a five-step sequential disability evaluation process in determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step thereof, the disability determination is made at that step, and the sequential evaluation process ends. Id. Step one considers whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1175 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)). Step two considers “the severity of the claimant's impairments.” Id. If the claimant is found to have a severe impairment, step three considers “whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals a listing under 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1.” Id. “If so, the claimant is considered disabled and benefits are awarded, ending the inquiry.” Id. If not, the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is considered at step four in determining whether the claimant can still do his or her past relevant work and, if necessary, at step five “make an adjustment to other work.” Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determined plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since plaintiff's application date of January 28, 2014. At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “left knee degenerative joint disease; left shoulder degenerative joint disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; dysphagia/Barrett's esophagus; h pylori, gastroesophageal reflux disease; gastric nodule; lymphadenopathy; thoracic adenopathy; sarcoidosis/non-necrotizing granulomatous inflammation; history of bone tumor (enchondroma); morbid obesity; fibromyalgia, chronic pain disorder; and obesity[.]” AR 18. 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. AR 22.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with additional mental limitations and physical limitations related to hazards, the environment, posture, climbing, and use of the upper extremities. See AR 22-23. After determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four plaintiff has no past relevant work, but that at step five she could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore found plaintiff was not disabled. AR 36.

         II. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision, arguing the ALJ erred by (1) not providing legally sufficient reasons to discount plaintiff's testimony about the combined impacts of her impairments; (2) not providing legally sufficient reasons to discount the opinions of plaintiff's treating provider Don Prater PA-C; and (3) wrongly concluding there were sufficient jobs in the national economy plaintiff could perform. See Dkt. 10, pp. 1-13.

         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). This requires “more than a mere scintilla, ” though “less than a preponderance” of the evidence. Id.; Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674-75 (9th Cir. 2017).

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009-10 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court reviews “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which he did not rely.” Id. at 1010.

         If more than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the evidence, then the Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)). The Court, however, may not affirm by locating a quantum of supporting evidence and ignoring the non-supporting evidence. Orn, 495 F.3d at 630.

         A. Whether the ALJ appropriately evaluated plaintiff's symptom testimony.[1]

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in discounting her testimony regarding the limitations that her impairments cause. Dkt. 11, pp. 4-5.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit uses a two-step inquiry for determining whether and to what extent the claimant's testimony about severity of symptoms must be credited:

• First, has the claimant presented objective medical evidence of an impairment that reasonably could produce the pain or other symptoms alleged? The claimant is not required to show that the impairment could reasonably be expected to result in the exact severity of symptoms that the claimant alleges; the claimant is only required to show that the impairment could reasonably have caused some degree of the symptoms. The claimant is not required ...

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