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Terry J. v. Saul

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

July 29, 2019

TERRY J., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff proceeds through counsel in his appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner partially denied Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1963.[2] He has a high school diploma and additional training as a computer technician, and has worked as a restaurant cook, dishwasher, busboy, and server; security guard; hotel banquet houseman and maintenance worker; janitor; stocker; and merchandise loader. (AR 59, 330-41, 1977, 2017-18.)

         Plaintiff applied for SSI in July 2013, [3] alleging disability beginning July 1, 1997.[4] (AR 238-46.) That application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 170-73, 180-84.)

         On November 19, 2014, ALJ Ilene Sloan held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 52-84.) On March 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 26-45.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 24, 2015 (AR 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court, which reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded for further proceedings. (AR 2094-2111.) ALJ Sloan held another hearing on February 28, 2018 (AR 2005-33)[5], and subsequently issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of April 24, 2018, but not disabled before. (AR 1939-60.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had worked during the adjudicated period, but had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (AR 1942.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's sleep apnea, diabetes mellitus with polyneuropathy, mild bilateral knee degenerative joint disease, obesity, traumatic glaucoma of the left eye with impaired vision, meralgia paresthetica, lumbar facet arthralgia, left ulnar neuropathy, major depressive disorder with history of intermittent psychotic features, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse in remission, intellectual development disorder, and developmental learning disorder in verbal comprehension. (AR 1942-43.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 1943-47.)

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a range of light work, with additional limitations: he could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, or steep inclines. He could have no exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights. He could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He could have frequent accommodation of visual limitations and occasional field of vision and depth perception. He could understand, remember, and carry out simple and some detailed tasks. He could have occasional, brief, and superficial contact with the general public, but none of the essential elements of any task could depend on contact with the general public. He could not perform tandem tasks or tasks involving cooperative team effort. He could occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity. He could frequently handle and finger. (AR 1947.)

         The ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff has no past relevant work (AR 1957), and proceeded to step five, where the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the help of the VE, the ALJ found that before April 24, 2018, Plaintiff was able to perform representative occupations such as house sitter, food assembler, and marking clerk. (AR 1958-59.) As of April 24, 2018, Plaintiff could no longer perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and he therefore became disabled on that date. (AR 1959-60.)

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) failing to follow the Court's remand order, (2) discounting certain medical opinions, and (3) assessing his RFC. Dkt. 10. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         Remand ...

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