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Dameron D.J. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

July 8, 2019

DAMERON D.J., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER TO REVERSE THE COMMISSIONER'S DECISION TO DENY DISABILITY BENEFITS

          Theresa L. Fricke United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff brought this matter for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DBI”). For the reasons below, the decision to deny benefits is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         I. ISSUE FOR REVIEW, AND COURT'S HOLDING

         Did the ALJ err by providing legally insufficient reasons, based on less than substantial evidence, to discount the opinion of examining psychologist Alysa A. Ruddell, Ph.D.? The Court holds that the ALJ erred and this case will be remanded for further administrative proceedings, as discussed below.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On June 24, 2015, plaintiff applied for SSI and DBI, alleging disability beginning January 15, 2015. Dkt. 6, Administrative Record (“AR”) p. 15. His application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. Plaintiff appeared and testified before administrative law judge Allen G. Erickson (the “ALJ”) on February 7, 2017. AR 35-95. On July 19, 2017, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled. See AR 15-30.

         The Commissioner employs a five-step 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 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.

         In this case at step one, the ALJ determined plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since plaintiff's alleged onset date. AR 17. At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; obesity; major depressive disorder; post traumatic stress disorder; [and] insomnia[.]” AR 17 (citations omitted). At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. AR 20.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with some additional climbing, postural, environmental, and mental limitations. AR 23. With respect to plaintiff's mental RFC, the ALJ determined plaintiff can “understand, remember, and apply short, simple instructions; can perform routine tasks, not in a fast paced production type environment; can make simple decisions; and can have occasional interactions with the general public.” Id. After determining plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that he could not perform his past relevant work, but that at step five he could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore found plaintiff was not disabled. AR 28-30.

         Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council. AR 1. Plaintiff appealed to this Court on August 2, 2018. Dkt. 1. The Parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. Dkt. 3.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 (9th Cir. 2014). It must weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court considers in its review only the reasons the ALJ identified and may not affirm for a different reason. Id. Furthermore, “[l]ong-standing principles of administrative law require us to review the ALJ's decision based on the reasoning and actual findings offered by the ALJ-not post hoc rationalizations that attempt to intuit what the adjudicator may have been thinking.” Bray v. Comm'r of SSA, 554 F.3d 1219, 1225-26 (9th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).

         “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” the Court must uphold the ALJ's finding. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). It is unnecessary for the ALJ to “discuss all evidence presented”. Vincent on Behalf of Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1394-95 (9th Cir. 1984) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original). The ALJ must only explain why “significant probative evidence has been rejected.” Id. The Court should consider that “‘[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ...


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