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Joseph R v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 3, 2019

JOSEPH R., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DENIAL OF BENEFITS

          ROBERT J. BRYAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Joseph R. seeks review of the denial of his application for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff contends that (1) the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by finding that Plaintiff could perform his past work as a cashier, and (2) the case must be remanded because the ALJ was not properly appointed under the constitutional Appointments Clause. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. # 11) at 1. Because the Court finds that this case can be resolved based on Plaintiff's first claim of error, and based on the principle of constitutional avoidance, the Court declines to reach Plaintiff's second claim of error. See Copeland v. Ryan, 852 F.3d 900, 905 (9th Cir. 2017) (declining to address claim of error based on constitutional grounds where case could be resolved on another ground). 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

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits on April 9, 2015. Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. # 9) at 99, 251-65. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 14, 2014. Id. at 99. The Social Security Administration denied his claims initially and on reconsideration. Id. at 99-127, 130-45.

         On May 9, 2017, ALJ Laura Valente held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. Id. at 64-96. On December 14, 2017, ALJ Valente issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denying his benefits claim. Id. at 44-55.

         B. The ALJ's Decision

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, ALJ Valente found that Plaintiff had briefly engaged in substantial gainful activity in mid-2014, but had no other periods of gainful activity since January 14, 2014, the alleged onset date. AR at 46. ALJ Valente found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of “epilepsy and/or other seizure disorder, and organic mental disorder (with possible remote cerebrovascular accident).” Id. at 47. The ALJ concluded that these impairments, singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         ALJ Valente determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, except that he could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding. Id. at 49. Plaintiff needed to avoid all exposure to hazards. Id. Plaintiff had sufficient concentration to understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine tasks. Plaintiff could adapt to simple workplace changes as may be required by such tasks. Id.

         At step four of the disability evaluation process, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Valente determined that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a cashier II. Id. at 54. Based on these findings, ALJ Valente determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 14, 2014, through the date of the ALJ's decision. Id.

         The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Id. at 1-3. The ALJ's decision thus became the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if 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 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). 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 ALJ. See Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. ...


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