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Wesely L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

November 18, 2019

WESELY L., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding that he did not meet a listing at step three, in discounting his subjective testimony and the lay testimony, in assessing the medical opinion evidence, and in relying on the vocational expert (“VE”) testimony at step five. (Dkt. # 11 at 2.) As discussed below, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's final decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff was born in 1966, has an associate's degree, and previously worked as a laborer, machinist, and line cook. AR at 49-50, 307. At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was working part-time as a line cook. Id. at 54-55.

         In October 2015, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of July 1, 2007. AR at 270-82. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 153-68, 171-86. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on September 28, 2017 (id. at 39-87), the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 16-30.

Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:
Step one: Plaintiff worked since his application date, but the work did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.
Step two: Plaintiff's osteoarthritis, sciatica, obesity, hypertension, insomnia, chronic pain syndrome, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder are severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform light work with additional limitations: He cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, or climb ramps or stairs. He can occasionally reach overhead. He cannot have concentrated exposure to hazards. He can perform simple, routine tasks. He can have occasional superficial interaction with co-workers and the general public, in places where the general public is typically not present. He can occasionally adapt to changes in the work setting or work processes.
Step four: Plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, Plaintiff is not disabled.

AR at 16-30.

         As the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision. AR at 1-7. Plaintiff appealed the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 13.)


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this 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). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id.

         “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.


         A. The ALJ Did Not ...

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