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Rachel H. L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

September 25, 2019

RACHEL H. L., 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 her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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. 4.

         The parties agree the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) committed reversible error. As there are no outstanding issues to be resolved and it is clear Plaintiff would be found disabled if Dr. Tracy Gordy, M.D.’s opinion is credited as true, the Court remands this case for an award of benefits pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 23, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, alleging disability beginning January 1, 1992. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (“AR”) 1511. The application was denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See AR 1511. After holding an administrative hearing, ALJ Glen G. Meyers issued a decision on January 11, 2013 finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 36-88, 1683-1707. The Appeals Council vacated the January 2013 decision and remanded the case to an ALJ for further proceedings. AR 176-79. On remand from the Appeals Council, ALJ Meyers held a second administrative hearing. AR 89-132; see also AR 1511. In a decision dated October 31, 2014, ALJ Meyers again found Plaintiff was not disabled. AR 11-34; see also AR 1511. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s administrative appeal. See AR 1-6. Plaintiff appealed to the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington (“District Court”); the District Court remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. See AR 1718-27.

         On remand from the District Court, the Appeals Council vacated the October 2014 decision and remanded the case to an ALJ for further proceedings. AR 1733-36. ALJ Kelly Wilson held an administrative hearing on November 18, 2016. AR 1544-1612. No. decision was rendered. ALJ Rebecca L. Jones then held an administrative hearing and a supplemental hearing. AR 1613-1643, 1644-1682. ALJ Jones issued the third ALJ decision in this matter on August 13, 2018, finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 1511-32. Plaintiff now appeals ALJ Jones’s August 13, 2018 decision, which is the final decision of the Commissioner.[1]

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly determining Plaintiff’s use of marijuana was a factor material to her disability; (2) violating the law of the case doctrine; (3) improperly evaluating the medical evidence; (4) improperly evaluating Plaintiff’s testimony; (5) improperly evaluating the lay evidence; (6) improperly determining Plaintiff did not meet a Listing; and (7) failing to properly assess Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity. Dkt. 15, pp. 1-2. Plaintiff requests the Court remand this case for an award of benefits. Id. at pp. 27-28.

         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

         Plaintiff and Defendant agree the ALJ committed reversible error. Dkt. 15, 18, 19. Plaintiff argues the case should be remanded for payment of benefits, while Defendant asserts the case should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. See Dkt. 15, 18, 19.

         I. Credit-as-true

         The Court may remand a case “either for additional evidence and findings or to award benefits.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996). Generally, when the Court reverses an ALJ’s decision, “the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.” Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). However, the Ninth Circuit created a “test for determining when evidence should be credited and an immediate award of benefits directed[.]” Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2000). Specifically, under this “credit-as-true” test, benefits should be awarded where:

(1) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting [the claimant’s] evidence, (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made, and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be ...

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