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Darrell H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 1, 2019

DARRELL H., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MICHELLE L. PETERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating medical opinion evidence; formulating the residual functional capacity (“RFC”); evaluating Plaintiff's symptom testimony; and relying on vocational expert (“VE”) testimony. (Dkt. # 11.) 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).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1966, has a GED, and has worked as an auto technician and laborer. AR at 224, 248. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2011. Id. at 223.

         On May 15, 2015, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of December 31, 2011.[1] AR at 198-210. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 59, 78, 146-48. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on October 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR at 15-23.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [2] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2011.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: left shoulder degenerative joint disease; right thumb degenerative joint disease; left hand carpal tunnel syndrome (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[3]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). He can lift/carry and push/pull ten pounds frequently and occasionally. With the dominant right hand he can occasionally do handling and fingering. With the left hand he can frequently do handling and fingering. With the left upper extremity he can do no overhead reaching, and can occasionally reach at or below shoulder level. He can occasionally crawl. He can do no climbing of ropes, ladders and scaffolds. He is capable of engaging in unskilled, repetitive, routine tasks in two-hour increments.
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.

AR at 15-23.

         As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. AR at 1-6. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 11.)

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Under 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). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id.

         “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, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         1.Legal Standards for Evaluating Plaintiff's Testimony

         It is the province of the ALJ to determine what weight should be afforded to a claimant's testimony, and this determination will not be disturbed unless it is not supported by substantial evidence. A determination of whether to accept a claimant's subjective symptom testimony requires a two-step analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929; Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281. First, the ALJ must determine whether there is a medically determinable impairment that reasonably could be expected to cause the claimant's symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(b), 416.929(b); Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1281-82. Once a claimant produces medical evidence of an underlying impairment, the ALJ may not discredit the claimant's testimony as to the severity of symptoms solely because they are unsupported by objective medical evidence. Bunnell v. Sullivan, 947 F.2d 341, 343 (9th Cir. 1991) (en banc); Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1988). Absent affirmative evidence showing that the claimant is malingering, the ALJ must provide “clear and convincing” reasons for rejecting the claimant's testimony. Burrell v. Colvin, 775 F.3d 1133, 1136-37 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012)). See also Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007).

         When evaluating a claimant's subjective symptom testimony, the ALJ must specifically identify what testimony is not credible and what evidence undermines the claimant's complaints; general findings are insufficient. Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1284; Reddick, 157 F.3d at 722. The ALJ may consider “ordinary techniques of credibility evaluation, ” including a claimant's reputation for truthfulness, inconsistencies in testimony or between testimony and conduct, daily activities, work record, and testimony from physicians and third parties concerning the nature, severity, and effect of the alleged symptoms. Thomas, 278 F.3d at 958-59 (citing Light v. Social Sec. Admin., 119 F.3d 789, 792 (9th Cir. 1997)).

         2.The ALJ Provided Clear and Convincing Reasons for ...


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