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Donda P. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 30, 2019

DONDA P., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROSANNA MALOUF PETERSON United States District Judge

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 11, 14. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. The Plaintiff is represented by Attorney Cory J. Brandt. The Defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Lisa Goldoftas. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 11, and DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 14.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Donda P.[1] protectively filed for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on August 18, 2014, alleging an onset date of December 1, 2010.[2] Tr. 282-89. Benefits were denied initially, Tr. 162-76, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 179-89. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on February 10, 2017. Tr. 19-64. Plaintiff had representation and testified at the hearing. Id. The ALJ denied benefits, Tr. 142-61, and the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1. The matter is now before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3).

         BACKGROUND

         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner. Only the most pertinent facts are summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 46 years old at the time of the hearing. See Tr. 146. She graduated from high school, and at one time she had certification as a nurse assistant. Tr. 24-25, 56. Plaintiff lives with her boyfriend. Tr. 24. She has work history as a nurse assistant and salvager. Tr. 26. Plaintiff testified that she cannot work because of anxiety, depression, and short-term memory loss. Tr. 26.

         Plaintiff testified that she misses a lot of therapy appointments due to anxiety about being around people, and if it was not for her daughter she would “probably stay in bed all day.” Tr. 46-48. She reported that she hoards things, is “overwhelmed a lot of times”; gets so nervous around people that she cannot breathe; isolates in her shed; and forgets where she puts things. Tr. 48-51. Plaintiff testified that she can read the newspaper “a little bit” but needs help to understand the words, and cannot count change at the grocery store. Tr. 53.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable 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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 ...


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