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Etelbina M. v. Saul

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

December 9, 2019

ETELBINA M., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



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


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1979.[1] She obtained her GED and previously worked as a machine packager, fruit farm worker II, industrial cleaner, material handler, yarn winder, boat patcher, fast food worker, amusement park worker, cleaner housekeeper, and sales representative. (AR 53, 976-77.)

         Plaintiff filed DIB and SSI applications in June 2012, alleging disability beginning April 24, 2012. (AR 223, 231.) The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration.

         On June 9, 2014, ALJ Larry Kennedy held a hearing, taking testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 47-90.) On September 25, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (AR 22-39.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on February 23, 2016 (AR 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision to the district court for the Eastern District of Washington.

         On March 29, 2017, the district court issued a decision remanding this matter for further proceedings, including reassessment of plaintiff's symptom testimony and medical opinion evidence. (AR 1607-27.) The Appeals Council remanded the decision to the ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the order of the Court and for a new decision on consolidated claims, including later-filed DIB and SSI applications. (AR 1630.)

         The ALJ held a second hearing on October 26, 2018, taking testimony from plaintiff and a VE. (AR 1450-97.) In a decision dated February 5, 2019, the ALJ again found plaintiff not disabled. (AR 955-78.) Plaintiff thereafter appealed the case directly 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 noted evidence of earnings in 2013 and plaintiff's testimony of performing temporary jobs as a housekeeper and flagger, but found this work did not amount to substantial gainful activity. At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found the following impairments severe: obesity; status-post gastric bypass surgery, with residual complications of anemia; degenerative changes of the lumbar spine vs. sacroiliac (SI) joint impairment, status-post fusion; hiatal hernia; right shoulder impairment; urinary frequency/incontinence; bipolar disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); generalized anxiety disorder; personality disorder; and substance use disorder. Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listing.

         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 able to perform light work, with the following non-exertional limitations: frequently reach; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; never climb or crawl; avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations, heights, and hazards; perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions; work that needs little or no judgment and simple duties that can be learned on-the-job in a short period; work environment with minimal supervisor contact (minimal does not preclude all contact and means contact that does not occur regularly; minimal also does not preclude simple and superficial exchanges or being in proximity to supervisors); can work in proximity to co-workers, but not in a cooperative or team effort; no more than superficial interactions with co-workers; work environment that is predictable and with few work setting changes; and no public contact. With that RFC, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to perform any past relevant work.

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, or has no 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 ...

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