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Thompson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

July 2, 2013

Dawn Michele Thompson, Plaintiff,
Carolyn W. Colvin, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


LAWRENCE O. ANDERSON, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff seeks review of the Social Security Administration Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. The parties, who have consented to proceed before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge, have filed briefs in accordance with local Rules of Practice ("LRCiv")16.1. After review of the record, briefing and applicable law, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed and the matter is remanded for an award of benefits.

I. Procedural Background

On August 14, 2009, Plaintiff filed applications for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 and §§ 1381-1383c (AR[1] 187-201). Plaintiff was 41 years old when she filed the applications and has a high school education. (AR 45, 231) Plaintiff claimed in the applications she was unable to work because of a disabling condition on June 1, 2008, and that she remains disabled. (AR 187, 195) Plaintiff identified depression and degenerative disc disease as the conditions that limited her ability to work. (AR 226, 54)

Plaintiff's applications were denied by the Social Security Administration ("SSA") on February 12, 2010. (AR 126-133) Following Plaintiff's request for reconsideration, the SSA affirmed the denial of the applications on August 3, 2010. (AR 139-145) Pursuant to Plaintiff's request, AR 146, a hearing was held on May 5, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Patrick Kilgannon. (AR 38-81) In a decision, dated May 18, 2011, the ALJ ruled Plaintiff is not entitled to disability benefits because she has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from the alleged date of onset through the date of the decision. (AR 20-31) On February 8, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. (AR 1-3) As a result of the denial, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner of the SSA. (AR 1)

Having exhausted the administrative review process, Plaintiff sought judicial review of the Commissioner's decision on April 4, 2012, by filing a Complaint in this District Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1) On August 21, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Opening Brief pursuant to LRCiv 16.1, in which she seeks a remand for an award of disability benefits or, alternatively, a remand for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. 17) On September 20, 2012, Defendant filed an Opposition to Plaintiff's Opening Brief. (Doc. 18) Plaintiff then filed a Reply Brief on October 9, 2012. (Doc. 19)

II. Applicable Legal Standards

A. Standard of Review

The Court must affirm the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible error. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998); Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it 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); see also Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720. In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, a district court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720; Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993). The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts, ambiguity, and determining credibility. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). "If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Secretary's conclusion, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary." Reddick, 157 F.3d at 720-21.

B. Sequential Evaluation Process

To be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, a claimant must show an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). The claimant bears the initial burden of proving disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). A five step procedure is used to evaluate a disability claim:

In step one, the Secretary determines whether a claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). In step two, the Secretary determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments, " as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the answer is no, the claimant is not disabled. If the answer is yes, the Secretary proceeds to step three and determines whether the impairment meets or equals a "listed" impairment that the Secretary has acknowledged to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If this requirement is met, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Secretary proceeds to step four. At step four, the Secretary determines whether the claimant can perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant can perform such work, she is not disabled. If the claimant meets the burden of establishing an inability to perform prior work, the Secretary must show, at step five, that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

Reddick, 157 F.3d at 721.

III. ALJ Decision

Applying the five-step procedure in this case, the ALJ determined Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of her disabling condition. (AR 25) The ALJ found Plaintiff has the following "severe" impairments within the meaning of the regulations: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines, depression, and multiple sclerosis. (AR 25) The ALJ determined, however, that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. (AR 26) As a result, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity[2] ("RFC"). (AR 27-30) The ALJ determined Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and § 416.967(b), and SSR[3] 83-10. (AR 27) He found Plaintiff is able to lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks; and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks, among other limitations. (AR 27) The ALJ further determined that although Plaintiff's RFC is such that she is unable to perform any of her past relevant work, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (AR ...

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