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Sonya C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 4, 2019

SONYA C., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          STANLEY A. BASTIAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 12 and 13. The motions were heard without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, denies Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and remands for a new hearing.

         JURISDICTION

         On March 9, 2015, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, along with a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. These claims were denied, and Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). On March 10, 2017, a hearing was held before an ALJ, who issued an unfavorable decision on April 14, 2017. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 25, 2018. Plaintiff timely appealed to this Court. This matter is properly before the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if his impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person meets the definition of disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Substantial gainful activity is defined as significant physical or mental activities done or usually done for profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the individual is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, he or she is not disabled. If the ALJ finds the claimant does have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ proceeds to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether any of the claimant's severe impairments “meets or equals” one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be sufficiently severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525; 20 C.F.R. § 404. Subpt. P. App. 1 (“the Listings”). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is per se disabled and qualifies for benefits. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). An individual's residual functional capacity is his or her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3).

         At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's residual functional capacity enables the claimant to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. If the ALJ finds the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.

         At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, taking into account claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). To meet this burden, the Commissioner must establish (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir. 1999).

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The facts have been presented in the administrative transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs to this Court. Only the most relevant facts are summarized here.

         Plaintiff alleges a disability onset date of November 20, 2014, due to a combination of back and neck problems and mental health disorders. Plaintiff's struggles include social anxiety induced anxiety, which make public interactions and basic functions like riding a bus or procuring groceries difficult without accompaniment, depression, decreased cognitive functioning, and abrupt outbursts of anger.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff met the insured status requirements, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 20, 2014, the amended alleged onset date. AR 28.

         At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease; obesity; bipolar disorder; major depressive disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; personality disorder NOS; and cannabis use disorder. AR 28.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listed ...


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