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Denina M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 8, 2019

DENISA DENINA M., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff appeals the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) finding her not disabled and contends the ALJ erred in evaluating medical opinion evidence. Dkt. 1. The undersigned concludes that the ALJ committed reversible error in his evaluations and that remand for further proceedings is necessary to resolve the error. Therefore, the Court recommends REVERSING the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDING the case for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         On September 4, 2015, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Tr. 280. Plaintiff claimed disability with an alleged onset date of June 5, 2015. Tr. 283, 285. The claims were denied initially on January 29, 2016, and upon reconsideration on May 4, 2016. Tr. 182, 192, 198. On November 6, 2017, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Vadim Mozyrsky. Tr. 39.

         Utilizing the five step sequential evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At steps two and three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from severe impairments including asthma, allergies, borderline intellectual functioning, anxiety, depression, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and alcohol use disorder - none of which met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 18.

         Between steps three and four, the ALJ found Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following non-exertional limitations:

[S]he is limited to no concentrated exposure to humidity and wetness; she is limited to no concentrated exposure to airborne irritants, such as dust, fumes, and gases; she is limited to a moderate noise environment; she is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks and simple work related decisions; she is limited to superficial contact with the public, such as passing people in hallways, but no direct contact as part of the actual job requirements; she is limited to tolerating few changes in a routine work setting (defined as having routine tasks in the same environment day-to-day).

Tr. 21. At step four the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 29. At step five, based on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ identified three jobs, requiring Level 2 reasoning, that Plaintiff could perform based on the given hypothetical: production assembler (DOT at 706.687-010, laundry sorter (DOT at 361.687-014), and hand packager-inspector (DOT at 559.687-074). Tr. 30; see Tr. 59. Finally, the ALJ found that these jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 30.

         The ALJ issued his decision on January 19, 2018finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 31. On November 14, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 260), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Tr. 1.


         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. However, the Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not rely. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014).

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility and resolving ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the evidence is inconclusive, “‘questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts are functions solely of the [ALJ]'” and this Court will uphold those conclusions. Morgan v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999) (quoting Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982)). As part of this discretion, the ALJ determines whether inconsistencies in the evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant” in deciding how to weigh medical opinions. Id. at 603. The ALJ can meet this burden by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings. Magallanes, 881 F.2d at 751. ...

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