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John G. A. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 10, 2019

JOHN G. A., III, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          David W. Christel United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff filed this action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of Defendant's denial of her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. See Dkt. 2.

         The parties agree the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) committed reversible error. Further, the Court finds there are outstanding issues that must be resolved regarding Plaintiff's ability to perform his past relevant work and other jobs in the national economy. Accordingly, this matter is reversed and remanded pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”).

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 13, 2015, Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning June 4, 2013. See Dkt. 10, Administrative Record (“AR”) 17. The applications were denied on initial administrative review and reconsideration. See AR 17. A hearing was held before ALJ S. Andrew Grace on April 6, 2017. See AR 73-105. A supplemental hearing was held before the ALJ on February 1, 2018. See AR 39-72. In a decision dated March 14, 2018, the ALJ determined Plaintiff became disabled on January 13, 2015; however, he found Plaintiff was not disabled prior to this date. AR 17-30. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See AR 1-5; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481.

         In the Opening Brief, Plaintiff maintains the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly considering Plaintiff's past relevant work and improperly applying the grids; and (2) improperly evaluating Plaintiff's testimony. Dkt. 12, p. 1. Plaintiff requests the Court remand this case for an award of benefits. Id. at p. 18.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits if 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 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (citing Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999)).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff and Defendant agree the ALJ committed reversible error. Dkt. 12, 19, 20. Plaintiff argues the case should be remanded for payment of benefits, while Defendant asserts the case should be remanded for further administrative proceedings. See Dkt. 12, 19, 20.

         The Court may remand a case “either for additional evidence and findings or to award benefits.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1292 (9th Cir. 1996). Generally, when the Court reverses an ALJ's decision, “the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.” Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). However, the Ninth Circuit created a “test for determining when evidence should be credited and an immediate award of benefits directed[.]” Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir. 2000). Specifically, under this “credit-as-true” test, benefits should be awarded where:

(1) the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting [the claimant's] evidence, (2) there are no outstanding issues that must be resolved before a determination of disability can be made, and (3) it is clear from the record that the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled were such evidence credited.

Smolen, 80 F.3d 1273 at 1292; McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076-77 (9th Cir. 2002).

         An ALJ's errors are relevant, however, only to the extent they impact the underlying question of the Plaintiff's disability. Strauss v. Commissioner of the Social Sec. Admin., 635 F.3d 1135, 1138 (9th Cir. 2011). “A claimant is not entitled to benefits under the statute unless the claimant is, in fact, disabled, no matter how egregious the ALJ's errors may be.” Id. (citing Briscoe ex rel. Taylor v. Barnhart, 425 F.3d 345, 357 (7th Cir. 2005)). Therefore, even if the “credit-as-true” conditions are satisfied, a court should nonetheless remand the case if “an evaluation of the record as a whole creates serious ...


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