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Watkins v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

March 31, 2017

Patrick Fitzgerald Watkins, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Douglas L. Rayes United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income on November 15, 2011, claiming disability since the filing date. (AR 22, 166-74.) After state agency denials, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on May 16, 2014. (AR 22-41.) The ALJ issued a written decision one month later, finding Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (AR 15-35.) This became Defendant's final decision when the Appeals Council denied review. (AR 1-3.)

         Plaintiff then commenced this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. 1.) After receipt of the administrative record (Doc. 10), the parties briefed the issues for review concerning Plaintiff's alleged mental disability (Docs. 17, 19, 22). For reasons stated below, Defendant's decision is reversed and the case remanded for an award of benefits.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the Commissioner's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the decision if it is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and such relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. Where “the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). The court, however, reviews “only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which [she] did not rely.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014).

         DISCUSSION

         Whether a claimant is disabled is determined using a five-step evaluation process. The claimant must show that (1) he is not currently working, (2) he has a severe impairment, and (3) his impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity (RFC) precludes him from performing past work. If the claimant meets his burden at step three, he is presumed disabled and the process ends. If the inquiry proceeds and the claimant meets his burden at step four, the Commissioner must show at the fifth and final step that the claimant is able to perform other work given his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         Plaintiff has met his burden at steps one and two: he has not worked since the alleged date of disability and has severe intellectual disability, depressive disorder, psychotic disorder, and polysubstance dependence in partial remission. (AR 24-25.) The ALJ found at step three that Plaintiff's impairments do not meet or equal a listed impairment. (AR 25-28.) The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of medium work limited to simple, repetitive tasks in jobs that are not fast-paced and do not require working as a team or with the public. (AR 28-35.) Based on this RFC and testimony from a vocational expert, the ALJ determined at step four that Plaintiff is not disabled because he can perform his past job as a construction worker. (AR 36.)

         Plaintiff challenges the step three determination, arguing that the ALJ erred in concluding that his intellectual disability does not meet listing 12.05B. (Doc. 17 at 8-11.) Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider certain “paragraph B” criteria in determining RFC (id. at 11-18), and by making the RFC determination without citing to supporting evidence (at 18-20). Defendant counters that the ALJ reasonably found that Plaintiff's intellectual disability does not meet the requirements of listing 12.05B (Doc. 19 at 6-10), and the RFC determination was proper and supported by substantial evidence (at 10-15). As explained below, the Court finds that the ALJ committed reversible error at step three and the case should be remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. The Step Three Determination and Listing 12.05B

         The listing of impairments, set forth in an appendix to the social security regulations, is comprised of various impairments to fifteen body systems. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. The impairments described in the listings are considered so severe they are presumed disabling regardless of a person's age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925(a); Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 183-84 (9th Cir. 1990). In order to meet a specific listing, the claimant must present evidence satisfying the diagnostic description of the impairment and any additional criteria or requirements set forth in the listing. 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(d); Young, 911 F.2d at 184.[1]

         Listing 12.05 sets forth the requirements for intellectual disability (formerly known as “mental retardation” under the old rules and as “intellectual disorder” under the new ones). The listing contains an introductory paragraph setting forth the diagnostic description of the impairment as (1) significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with (2) deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the developmental period, that is, before age 22. The listing also contains four sets of criteria, subparagraphs A through D, which address the required level of severity for the condition to be presumed disabling. To meet Listing 12.05, the claimant must show that his impairments satisfy both the diagnostic description of intellectual disability in the introductory paragraph and any one of the four criteria in subparagraphs A through D. 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(c)(3) (“We will find that your impairment(s) meets the requirements of a listing when it satisfies all of the criteria of that listing, including any relevant criteria in the introduction, and meets the [twelve-month] duration requirement.”).

         Subparagraph B, the one at issue here, requires a valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 59 or less in order for the intellectual disability to be presumed disabling. Here, Plaintiff had a full scale IQ of 56, which is extremely low according to Dr. Alysha Bundy, the state agency psychologist who administered the IQ test. (AR 411.) Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in concluding that the IQ score is not valid and Plaintiff had no “significant” deficits in adaptive functioning. (Doc. 17 at 9.) The Court agrees.

         A. Validity ...


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