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John F. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 29, 2019

JOHN F., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff John F. seeks review of the denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. (See Compl. (Dkt. # 3).) Plaintiff contends that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in discounting (1) Plaintiff's testimony, (2) the opinions of Plaintiff's treating primary care physician, Mary Wemple, M.D., and (3) the lay witness statements of Plaintiff's father. (Pl. Op. Br. (Dkt. # 9) at 1.) As discussed below, the court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS the matter for further administrative proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, ALJ Ilene Sloan found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 25, 2014, the alleged onset date. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571-76.
Step two: Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: Ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, anxiety, and depression. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).
Step three: Plaintiff 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.
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with exceptions. He can stand and walk for three hours in an eight-hour day. He can sit for six hours in an eight-hour day. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and occasionally stoop. He can adapt to predictable changes in the work setting. He must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold. He can understand, remember, and carry out simple tasks. He can have occasional contact with the general public, but it should not be an essential element of any task.
Step four: Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1565.
Step five: Considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a).

(Admin. Record (“AR”) (Dkt. # 7) at 16-31.) ALJ Sloan thus found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act (“Act”), from July 25, 2014, through the date of ALJ Sloan's decision. (Id. at 31.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making ALJ Sloan's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (See Id. at 1-3.)

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that he is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the court may set aside a denial of social security benefits only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Although the court is required to examine the entire record, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         A. The ALJ Harmfully Erred in Discounting Plaintiff's Symptom Testimony

         Plaintiff argues that ALJ Sloan erred in discounting Plaintiff's testimony about his symptoms from fibromyalgia and ankylosing spondylitis. (Pl. Op. Br. at 3-15.) Plaintiff testified that he suffers from fatigue, which caused him to be absent from his work prior to the disability period. (AR at 43-45, 192, 211.) Plaintiff testified that he needs to lie down three to four times a day for 15 to 40 minutes at a time because his back stiffens up and he needs to “recharge.” (Id. at 45-46.) He spends most of his day at his computer, which is next to his bed, so he can lie down as needed. (Id. at 46-47, 193.) Plaintiff testified that he plays board games such as Dungeons & Dragons with a few close friends about once a week. (Id. at 47-48.) He plays live-action role-playing games about once a month. (Id. at 48-49, 56, 196.) This ...

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