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Jaques O. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

August 13, 2019

SARA JAQUES O., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in evaluating the medical evidence; discounting statements by Plaintiff and three lay witnesses; and assessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (Dkt. # 16.) As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff was born in 1977, completed two years of college, and has worked as a title clerk, telemarketer, receptionist, production worker, machine operator, fork lift operator, and in customer service. AR at 332-33, 338, 397. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2008. Id. at 332.

         On January 27, 2010, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of July 1, 2008. AR at 323. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 118, 119, 168-69. After ALJ Glenn G. Meyers conducted hearings on February 23, 2012 and June 12, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 34-84, 120-132. The matter was subsequently remanded by the Appeals Council. Id. at 140-43. ALJ Meyers conducted a third hearing on January 22, 2015, and issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 11-23. The Appeals Counsel declined review and Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Id. at 1-4. The Honorable Karen L. Strombom issued an order reversing ALJ Meyers' decision, and remanding the matter for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 1133-42. ALJ Virginia Robinson conducted Plaintiff's fourth hearing on June 8, 2018 and issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 1040-52.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of July 1, 2008 through her date last insured of December 31, 2012.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: lumbar spine degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; sleep apnea; obesity; migraine headaches; learning disorder; affective disorders (bipolar disorder and depression); anxiety disorders (anxiety, social phobia, agoraphobia, and panic disorder); impulse control disorder; pain disorder; and personality disorders (personality disorder, borderline personality characteristics, and B traits) (20 CFR 404.1520(c)).
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: through the date last insured, Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) with limitations. She could lift and carry up to twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently; she could stand and walk for approximately six hours and sit for approximately six hours per eight-hour workday with normal breaks; she could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; she has limited to simple routine tasks, in a routine work environment with simple work related decisions; and she was limited to only superficial interaction with coworkers and occasional superficial or incidental interactions with the public.
Step four: Through the date last insured, Plaintiff was unable 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 1040-52.

         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. # 16.)


         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.


         A. Prior Remand Order

         As discussed above, this matter was previously remanded for a fourth administrative hearing by this Court. AR at 1133-42. Judge Strombom found the ALJ's evaluation of the opinion evidence of Kristin Young, PA-C constituted reversible error, and therefore also reversed the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's RFC and step five finding. Id. at 1134. The Court declined to reach the remaining assignments of error.

         Despite the Court not reaching the other alleged errors, ALJ Robinson found that Judge Strombom had affirmed ALJ Meyers' evaluation of Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and his evaluation of Dr. Picco and Chiropractor Jeffrey's opinion evidence. Id. at 1047-48. Plaintiff argues ALJ Robinson erred by finding that Judge Strombom's remand order affirmed Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and the evaluation of Dr. Picco and Chiropractor Jeffrey's opinion, and also by incorporating the analysis of the ALJ Meyers' vacated decision regarding those alleged errors.[3] (Dkt. # 16 at 5-6.) Plaintiff further argues the ALJ should have instead re-evaluated all the evidence. (Id. at 6.)

         As noted above, the Court finds that Judge Strombom's order only addressed the ALJ's evaluation of Ms. Young's opinion evidence, and any implications that error had on the RFC determination and step five findings. Because the other assignments of error have not been ruled on, the Court will consider each of Plaintiff's alleged errors raised on appeal (dkt. # 16 at 1.).

         B. The ALJ Erred in Evaluating Plaintiff's 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 v. Charter, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996). 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 ...

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