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Alter v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

May 29, 2018

Richard Lon Alter, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Richard Alter seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, which denied him disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. Defendant concedes that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) decision is based on reversible legal error (Doc. 18), but the parties dispute whether the Court should remand for further administrative proceedings (Docs. 18, 19). The Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 54 year old male who previously worked as an irrigation technician, irrigation sales installer, and counter sales person. A.R. 30. Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on February 22, 2013, alleging disability beginning on February 24, 2011. A.R. 20. On October 23, 2015, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. A vocational expert also testified. Id.

         On February 18, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. A.R. 20-32. This became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 21, 2017. A.R. 1-6.

         II. Legal Standard.

         “When the ALJ denies benefits and the court finds error, the court ordinarily must remand to the agency for further proceedings before directing an award of benefits.” Leon v. Berryhill, 880 F.3d 1041, 1045 (9th Cir. 2017). Under a “rare exception” to this rule, the Court may remand for an immediate award of benefits after conducting a three-part inquiry. Id. The Ninth Circuit recently explained:

The three-part analysis . . . is known as the “credit-as-true” rule. First, we ask whether the ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion. Next, we determine whether there are outstanding issues that must be resolved before a disability determination can be made, and whether further administrative proceedings would be useful. When these first two conditions are satisfied, we then credit the discredited testimony as true for the purpose of determining whether, on the record taken as a whole, there is no doubt as to disability.

Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Leon emphasized that the Court has discretion to remand for further proceedings even if it reaches the third step in the process. Id. “Where an ALJ makes a legal error, but the record is uncertain and ambiguous, the proper approach is to remand the case to the agency.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

         III. The ALJ's Five-Step Evaluation Process.

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act, the ALJ follows a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). To establish disability, the claimant must show that (1) he is not currently working, (2) he has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents his performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets his burden through step three, the Commissioner must find him disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that he is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show in the fifth step that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2015, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 24, 2011. A.R. 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, status post microdiscectomy at ¶ 4-5; and left upper extremity epicondylosis. A.R. 23. The ALJ acknowledged that the record contained evidence of hyperlipidemia, hypertension, and depressive disorder, but found that these were not severe impairments. A.R. 23-24. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment. A.R. 25. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform less than the full range of light work, and was unable to perform any past relevant work. A.R. 25, 30. At step five, the ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed before the date last insured. A.R. 31.

         IV. Analysis.

         A. ...


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