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Kathleen S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 2, 2019

KATHLEEN S., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Kathleen S. appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”), which denied her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§401-33, after a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings under 42 U.S.C. §405(g).


         Plaintiff is a 42-year-old woman with a high school education. See Admin. Record (“AR”) at 69. Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of May 2, 2017. Id. at 112. Her claims were denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. at 112-33. On September 6, 2018, ALJ Malcolm Ross held a hearing, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. Id. at 64-110.

         On December 4, 2018, ALJ Ross issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim for benefits. Id. at 16-27. The Appeals Council denied review. Id. at 2-4. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court. Compl. (Dkt. #3).


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §405(g), the 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). “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.


         Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Act. Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment that has lasted, or is expected to last, for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. Valentine v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to be disabled at any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need to consider subsequent steps. Step one asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(b).[1] If she is, disability benefits are denied. If she is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. Id. At step two, the claimant must establish that she has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have such impairments, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to determine whether the impairment meets or equals any of the listed impairments described in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required 12-month duration is disabled. Id.

         When the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the Commissioner must proceed to step four and evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether she can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(f). If the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled; if the opposite is true, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099-100. If the Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(g).


         On December 4, 2018, ALJ Ross issued a decision finding the following:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 2, 2017, the alleged onset date. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1571-76.
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: Complex regional pain syndrome I (“CRPS”) of the bilateral lower limbs, plantar fasciitis, right first metatarsophalangeal joint hallux rigidus, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), chronic adjustment disorder with anxious and depressed mood, and migraine headaches. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(c).
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526.
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §404.1567(b), with exceptions. She can frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can frequently handle and finger bilaterally. She can withstand frequent exposure to extreme cold, vibrations, and hazards such as heights and machinery. She must avoid exposure to noise levels in excess of level three. She can perform simple and complex tasks, and can have occasional, superficial interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.
5. The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1565.
6. Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1569, 404.1569(a).
7. The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from the alleged disability onset date through the date of the ALJ's decision. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(g).

AR at 16-27.


         A. Whether the ALJ reasonably evaluated Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony.

         B. Whether the ALJ reasonably evaluated the medical evidence.

         C. Whether the ALJ reasonably evaluated Plaintiff's husband's statements. Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. #9) at 1. Plaintiff argues that, if the Court finds error, it should ...

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