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Matthew N. C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 17, 2019

MATTHEW N. C., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of his applications for supplemental security income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 3.

         After considering the record, the Court concludes the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred when he found Plaintiff experienced medical improvement beginning May 2, 2015. The ALJ also erred in his consideration of the March 2017 opinion of Terra Grandmason, ARNP. Had the ALJ properly considered the medical evidence in finding Plaintiff had medical improvement and properly considered Nurse Grandmason's opinion, Plaintiff's disability status may have continued or the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment beginning May 2, 2015 may have changed. The ALJ's error is, therefore, not harmless, and this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On September 22, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB, alleging disability as June 21, 2012. See Dkt. 8, Administrative Record (“AR”) 33. The applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 33. A hearing was held before ALJ Gene Duncan and, on November 21, 2014, ALJ Duncan denied Plaintiff's applications for benefits. See AR 33, 145-202, 367-89. The Appeals Council vacated ALJ Duncan's decision and remanded the case to ALJ Allen Erickson for further proceedings. See AR 33, 390-95. ALJ Erickson held a hearing on June 8, 2017. See AR 256-316. On September 7, 2017, ALJ Erickson issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled from June 21, 2012 through May 1, 2015. AR 33-46. ALJ Erickson, however, found that, as of May 2, 2015, Plaintiff experienced medical improvement and was no longer disabled. AR 46-53. Plaintiff's request for review of ALJ Erickson's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making ALJ Erickson's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.[1]

         The issue in this case is whether the ALJ erred in determining Plaintiff experienced medical improvement as of May 2, 2015, and is no longer disabled. See Dkt. 10. In finding Plaintiff was no longer disabled, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ failed to properly (1) establish medical improvement; (2) consider the opinion of Terra Grandmason, ARNP; and (3) consider Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony. Id. Plaintiff requests remand for an award of benefits. Id. at p. 12.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if 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 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Whether the ALJ properly established Plaintiff had medical improvement and was no longer disabled.

         A. Legal Standard

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in finding Plaintiff had medical improvement as of May 2, 2015, and was no longer disabled. Dkt. 10. “Once a claimant has been found to be disabled, ... a presumption of continuing disability arises in her favor.” Bellamy v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 755 F.2d 1380, 1381 (9th Cir. 1985). The Commissioner “bears the burden of producing evidence sufficient to rebut this presumption of continuing disability.” Id. To meet that burden, the Commissioner “must determine if there has been any medical improvement in [the claimant's] impairment(s) and, if so, whether this medical improvement is related to [the claimant's] ability to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594, § 416.994.

         “Medical improvement is any decrease in the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s), which was present at the time of the most recent favorable medical decision that [the claimant was] disabled.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1), § 416.994(b)(1). “A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on changes (improvement) in the symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings associated with [the claimant's] impairment(s).” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1), § 416.994(b)(1). Medical improvement is related to a claimant's ability to work if there is “an increase in [the claimant's] functional capacity to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(3), § 416.994(b)(3); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(4)(i), § 416.994(b)(4)(i).

         B. Medica ...


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