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Diane R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

December 19, 2019

DIANE R., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          MICHELLE L. PETERSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing certain medical opinions and in discounting her own testimony and that of lay witnesses. (Dkt. # 8 at 1-2.) 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).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1969, has a college degree and additional aviation training, and has worked as a customer service representative and bookkeeper. AR at 361, 380-84. At the time of the 2018 administrative hearing, Plaintiff was working as an administrative assistant at her church. Id. at 102-06.

         In August 2013, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of January 24, 2012. AR at 308-14. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 173-75, 180-86. After the ALJ conducted a hearing in February 2015 (id. at 52-95), the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled through January 2, 2015, but not disabled thereafter. Id. at 140-52.

         The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review, vacated the ALJ's partially favorable decision, and remanded the case for a new hearing and new decision. AR at 158-61. Plaintiff subsequently entered a request to withdraw a hearing request, intending to reinstate the ALJ's original partially favorable decision. Id. at 243, 459-60. The ALJ granted that request and dismissed her appeal, which resulted in the decision denying Plaintiff's application on reconsideration remaining in effect. Id. at 166. Plaintiff then again requested Appeals Council review, asking for the ALJ's dismissal to be vacated and that she be allowed to withdraw her first request for review. Id. at 461-62. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request to vacate the dismissal but denied her request to withdraw her first request for review, and remanded the case for a new hearing and new decision. Id. at 168-69.

         The ALJ held another hearing on April 10, 2018 (AR at 96-111), and subsequently entered a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled during any time period. Id. at 15-31. Specifically, utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 24, 2012, the alleged onset date.[2]
Step two: Plaintiff's status post resection meningioma, organic brain syndrome, anxiety disorder, and depressive disorder are severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[3]
Residual Functional Capacity: Plaintiff can perform work at all exertional levels, with the following non-exertional limitations: she can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions. She can make judgments commensurate with the functions of unskilled work (i.e., work that needs little or no judgment to do simple duties, and work that can usually be learned in 30 days with little specific vocational preparation and judgment). She can respond appropriately to supervisors and co-workers, but can have only occasional exposure to or interaction with the general public. She can tolerate occasional changes in the workplace.
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, ...

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