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Sherry F. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 17, 2019

SHERRY F., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 16, 17. Attorney Dana Chris Madsen represents Sherry F. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Brett Edward Eckelberg represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 8. 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 applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disabled Adult Child (DAC) Disability Benefits on July 8, 2015, alleging disability since April 21, 2005, based on depression, anxiety, personality disorders, back problems, dyslexia, learning disability, glaucoma, retinal nerve thinning, asthma, and possible COPD. Tr. 106, 272-84. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 166-72, 178-89. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) R.J. Payne held a hearing on February 23, 2017. Tr. 42-103. During the hearing, Plaintiff's representative withdrew the DAC claim. Tr. 46-47. On April 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision dismissing the DAC claim and denying the SSI claim. Tr. 21-35. Plaintiff requested review of the SSI denial from the Appeals Council. Tr. 265, 385-88. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the SSI claim on June 28, 2018. Tr. 1-5. The Appeals Council additionally found the record was insufficient to demonstrate that Plaintiff understood the effects of withdrawing the DAC claim, and therefore vacated the ALJ's dismissal and issued an unfavorable decision with respect to the DAC claim. Tr. 9-11. The ALJ's April 2017 decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner with respect to the SSI claim, and the Appeals Council's action became the final decision of the Commissioner with respect to the DAC claim, both of which are appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on August 27, 2018. ECF No. 1, 6.


         Plaintiff was born in 1985 and was 29 years old as of the filing of her application. Tr. 33. She attended school through the 11th grade before dropping out due to pregnancy; she completed her GED in 2014. Tr. 71, 499. She has a limited work history, consisting primarily of gas station cashiering. Tr. 98-99, 326. She alleged disability based on physical and mental impairments. Tr. 301.


         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. § 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. § 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On April 24, 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 July 8, 2015, the protected filing date. Tr. 23.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: low back pain due to minimal degenerative changes, and asthma. Id. The ALJ additionally found Plaintiff's mental health impairments and early glaucoma to be non-severe. Tr. 24-29.

         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. 29.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and found Plaintiff could perform light exertional level work with the following specific limitations:

The claimant can lift no more than 20 pounds at a time occasionally and lift or carry 10 pounds at a time frequently. She can sit 6 hours, stand 6 hours, or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks. She can engage in occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, crawling, balancing, and climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can have no exposure to heavy industrial-type vibration, unprotected heights, or hazardous machinery, and should avoid concentrated exposure to all pulmonary irritants.

Tr. 29.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was capable of performing past ...

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