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Linda M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 11, 2019

LINDA M., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          MICHELLE L. PETERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred by rejecting the opinions of treating physician Dennis Mann, D.O., Plaintiff's testimony, and the opinion of physical therapist Theodore Becker, Ph.D. (Dkt. # 13 at 1-2.) As discussed below, the Court RECOMMENDS that the Commissioner's final decision be REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1965 and has the equivalent of a high school education. AR at 75. Plaintiff has worked as a bench assembler, and was last gainfully employed in April 2013. AR at 75-71.

         On September 30, 2014, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of April 12, 2014. AR at 57. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. AR at 22. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on August 29, 2016, as well as a supplemental hearing on February 16, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled on May 18, 2017. AR at 19-41.

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

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 12, 2013, the alleged onset date.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: history of cerebrovascular accident (CVA), lumbar and cervical spine degenerative disc disease, distal interphalangeal (DIP) and interphalangeal (IP) degenerative joint changes, De Quervain's tenosynovitis, history of lateral epicondylitis, and Morton's neuroma with metatarsalgia.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work, except that she can only occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch, but never climb, balance, or crawl. She should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards. She cannot rapidly or repeatedly rotate head from side-to-side as would be necessary to drive, but can turn her head or body as necessary to look side-to-side. She cannot rapidly or repeatedly flex the neck (such as might be required by a surgeon) by moving the head forward or by bending the joint resulting in a decrease of angle, but she is able to flex her neck and use her eyes sufficiently to look down. Similarly, she cannot rapidly or repeatedly extend the neck (such as might be required by an electrician doing overhead work by moving the head backwards or by bending the joint resulting in an increase of angle) but is able to extend neck and use eyes sufficiently to look up.
Plaintiff can perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions. She can do work that needs little or no judgment, and can perform simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period. She can work in proximity to co-workers but not in a cooperative or team effort. She requires a work environment that has no more than superficial interactions with co-workers. She would not deal with the general public as in a sales position, or where the general public is frequently encountered as an essential element of the work process. Incidental contact of a superficial nature with the general public is not precluded.
Step four: Plaintiff can perform past relevant work as a bench assembler.
Step five: Alternatively, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as basket filler or egg sorter/handler. Plaintiff is therefore not disabled.

AR at 19-46.

         As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. AR at 13-18. After requesting and receiving an extension of time, Plaintiff timely appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 4.)

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         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.

         IV. ...


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