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Dawn T. v. Saul

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

November 21, 2019

DAWN T., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is REVERSED and REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1974.[1] She has a GED, and has worked as a cashier and stocker in a convenience store, and as an ice cream packager. (AR 34, 44-45, 220.)

         Plaintiff applied for SSI in September 2015. (AR 176-81.) That application was denied and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 92-100, 106-19.)

         On October 26, 2017, ALJ Tom Morris held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 32-67.) On May 4, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 15-31.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 28, 2018 (AR 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 8, 2015, the application date. (AR 17s.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's reconstructive surgery of weight-bearing joint, affective disorders, substance abuse disorder in reported remission, personality disorder, and obesity. (AR 17-18.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 18-19.)

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a range of light work, with additional limitations: “she can stand and/or walk 5 hours in an 8-hour work day or there can be a sit/stand option.” (AR 19.) She can frequently push and pull with her right lower extremities. She can frequently climb ramps and stairs. She can frequently crawl and balance. She should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. She can understand and remember simple, repetitive tasks. She should have no contact with the general public for work tasks but there can be incidental contact. She cannot perform collaborative work tasks. She can have occasional changes to the work environment “with one-day notice for any material changes.” (Id.) She is not able to perform at a production rate pace (e.g., assembly line work as where the pace is mechanically controlled) but can perform goal-oriented work where the worker has more control over the pace. She may be off task up to 10 percent over the course of an eight-hour workday. With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform past relevant work.[2] (AR 35.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the assistance of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to other representative occupations, such as final inspector, hand bander, and small product assembler I. (AR 25-26.)

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) assessing her RFC, (2) discounting her subjective symptom testimony, and (3) assessing certain medical evidence and opinions.[3] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's ...

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