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Marie H. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 29, 2019

TINA MARIE H., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 13, 14. Attorney Dana Madsen represents Tina H. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Michael Howard represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS, IN PART, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REMANDS the matter to the Commissioner for additional proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on July 29, 2015, alleging disability since June 1, 2015, due to degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, and nerve damage in her shoulder. Tr. 419-20, 458. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 346-49, 351-53. Plaintiff filed a concurrent application for Supplemental Security Income on June 1, 2016. Tr. 423-30. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jesse Shumway held a hearing on May 17, 2017, Tr. 269-311, and issued an unfavorable decision on July 21, 2017, Tr. 16-27. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council. Tr. 418. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 24, 2018. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's July 2017 decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on July 23, 2018. ECF No. 1.


         Plaintiff was born in 1972 and was 42 years old as of her alleged onset date. Tr. 25. She has a GED and completed some college courses. Tr. 285. Her work history consisted primarily of dog grooming. Tr. 285-86.

         In June 2015, Plaintiff was in a serious motorcycle accident, resulting in several fractures and necessitating multiple surgeries on her right shoulder. Tr. 286-87. She was in the hospital for several weeks and was in a wheelchair for a month. Tr. 1257. In the wake of her injuries and altered physical capabilities, she began to experience depression and anxiety. Tr. 856, 1060-61.


         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable interpretation of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence 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). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988).


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-1099. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work; and (2) the claimant can perform specific jobs that exist in the national economy. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On July 21, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2015, the alleged onset date. Tr. 19.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic rotator cuff tears of both shoulders, myofascial pain syndrome/fibromyalgia, obesity, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 19-20.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and found she could perform sedentary exertion level work with the following limitations:

she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or crawl; she can perform other postural activities occasionally; she can never reach overhead bilaterally and, with the right upper extremity, can reach only occasionally in all other directions; she can have no exposure to vibration or hazards (i.e., unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts); she is limited to unskilled and well-learned semi-skilled tasks in a routine, predictable work environment with no more than occasional changes; she can have only occasional contact with the public, supervisors, and coworkers; and she would likely be off task up to 5% of the workday.

Tr. 21.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as ...

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