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Fletcher v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 7, 2018

Jacqueline Ann Fletcher, Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Honorable Deborah M. Fine United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Jacqueline Ann Fletcher appeals from the denial of her application for benefits from the Social Security Administration. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, with the parties' consent to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). As detailed below, the Court concludes that the ALJ's opinion contains non-harmless legal error and remands for further proceedings.


         Fletcher was 50 years old on the alleged onset date. She has an 11th grade education and no past relevant work. (Tr. 15, 36-37, 50, 172)

         At the initial level, Defendant denied Fletcher's disability insurance claim because there was “insufficient evidence to determine the severity of [her] conditions.” (Tr. 68) It appears that there was insufficient evidence at the initial review because Fletcher had not returned some forms but that she subsequently returned her Activities of Daily Living form before the reconsideration review. (Tr. 67, 68, 76) It further appears that Fletcher did not attend a consultative examination on the advice of her representative. (Tr. 76, 79) On reconsideration, Defendant again concluded that “the information we received was insufficient to make a medical determination. After reviewing all the available medical and other information we find that there is insufficient evidence to determine the severity of your conditions, therefore your claim is denied.” (Tr. 80)

         At the subsequent administrative hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Randolph Schumm, Fletcher and Vocational Expert (“VE”) Kathryn Atha both testified. (Tr. 36) Fletcher testified about her pain, the swelling in her leg, and her blood clots. (Tr. 40-46) The ALJ asked VE Atha the following:

In this case we've got one hypothetical. We have a hypothetical claimant age 50 as of the protective filing date with 11 years of education, no past relevant work at SGA. It's been opined that this hypothetical claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally, 10 pounds frequently, requires a sit, stand option where this hypothetical claimant will sit, stand, or walk for a total of eight hours in an eight hour workday but is allowed to change positions every 30 minutes. In addition, this hypothetical claimant can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, never ropes, ladders, and scaffolds, occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch, and never crawl, reading overhead is limited to occasionally bilaterally and this hypothetical claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and unprotected heights. Given those restrictions and those alone, would there be examples of other work that this hypothetical claimant could perform?”

(Tr. 50-51) (emphasis added) VE Atha responded that this hypothetical claimant “could work in an unskilled light job that allows for sitting and standing” such as cashier II and production assembler. (Tr. 51)

         After the hearing, the ALJ issued an opinion that followed the requisite five step process. (Tr. 13-27) The ALJ found that Fletcher had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (Tr. 15) Next, the ALJ found that Fletcher had the following severe impairments: residuals of leg fractures, history of deep vein thrombosis and venous insufficiency bilaterally; degenerative changes of the lumbar and cervical spine; scoliosis of the thoracic spine; and obesity. (Tr. 15) However, these impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of any listed impairments. (Tr. 18) The ALJ found that Fletcher had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work subject to the identical limitations detailed in his hypothetical question to VE Atha. (Tr. 19) Accordingly, the ALJ found that Fletcher was capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and, therefore, did not meet the Social Security Act's definition of disability. (Tr. 27, 28)

         Standard of Review

         This court must affirm the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and are free from reversible error. Marcia v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 172, 174 (9thCir. 1990). Substantial evidence is more than a mere 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). In determining whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, the court considers the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). If there is sufficient evidence to support the ALJ's determination, the Court cannot substitute its own determination. See Young v. Sullivan, 911 F.2d 180, 184 (9thCir. 1990). Thus, the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision where the evidence considered in its entirety substantially supports it and the decision is free from reversible error. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989).


         One of Fletcher's arguments is that the ALJ did not explain the origin of the RFC limitations at the hearing or in the decision. (Doc. 19 at 22-23) The Court agrees.

         “[A]n ALJ's assessment of a claimant adequately captures restrictions related to concentration, persistence, or pace where the assessment is consistent with restrictions identified in the medical testimony.” Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue, 539 F.3d 1169, 1174 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing one case where ALJ incorporated verbatim limitations identified by state ...

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