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Meabon v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 17, 2018

L. D. Meabon, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G. Campbell Senior United States District Judge.

         Pro se Plaintiff L.D. Meabon seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”), which denied her disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under sections 216(i), 223(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Court will vacate the Commissioner's decision and remand the matter for further administrative proceedings.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 43 year-old woman with a high-school education and an Associate of Arts degree in television broadcasting. A.R. 78. Plaintiff previously worked as a human resources manager and personal assistant. A.R. 85-85. Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on January 9, 2014, alleging disability beginning October 31, 2013. A.R. 169. On June 14, 2016, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing before the ALJ. A.R. 52-119. On April 7, 2017, Plaintiff, a VE, and a medical expert (“ME”) appeared before the ALJ at a supplemental hearing. A.R. 120-66. On May 23, 2017, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Plaintiff disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act from October 31, 2013 through November 30, 2014. A.R. 26-42. But the ALJ found that Plaintiff's disability ceased as of December 1, 2014, based on medical improvement. A.R. 31. The ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 7, 2018. A.R. 1-4.

         II. Legal Standard.

         The district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the ALJ's decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court may set aside the Commissioner's disability determination only if the determination is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. In determining whether substantial evidence supports a decision, the Court must consider the record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a “specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). As a general rule, “[w]here 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) (citations omitted).

         III. The ALJ's Sequential Evaluation Process.

         A. Disability Determination.

         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). At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled, and the inquiry ends. Id. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a “severe” medically determinable physical or mental impairment. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If not, the claimant is not disabled, and the inquiry ends. Id. At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. pt. 404. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determines whether the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step, where he determines whether the claimant can perform any other work based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013, and that she had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 31, 2013. A.R. 35. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments from October 31, 2013 through November 30, 2014: schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment, and that Plaintiff's substance use disorder was not a contributing factor material to the determination of her disability. A.R. 36.

         B. Continuation of Disability.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to function without a considerable impairment as of December 1, 2014, due to medical improvement. A.R. 38. Once an ALJ finds a claimant disabled, the ALJ follows an eight-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant's disability continues through the date of the decision. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1)-(8). The ALJ determines whether: (1) the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, (2) the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment, (3) medical improvement has occurred, (4) medical improvement is related to ability to work, (5) an exception to medical improvement applies, and whether (6) all the claimant's current combined impairments are severe. Then the ALJ assesses (7) the claimant's RFC based on current impairments and determines whether she can perform past relevant work, and (8) whether the claimant can perform other work that is suitable for her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         The ALJ followed this sequential process and found, at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since she became disabled on October 31, 2013. A.R. 35. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments beginning December 1, 2014: schizophrenia spectrum, other psychotic disorders, and a substance addiction disorder. A.R. 36. At step three, the ALJ found medical improvement as of December 1, 2014. A.R. 38. At step four, the ALJ found that the medical improvement was related to Plaintiff's ability to work. Id. The ALJ did not address step five given his findings at steps three and four that Plaintiff's medical condition had improved and the improvement was related to ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5). At step six, the ALJ found that beginning December 1, 2014, Plaintiff had no current, severe combined impairments. A.R. 37. Under steps seven and eight, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work (A.R. 40), but that she could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels that exists in the national economy, with the following non-exertional limitations. Plaintiff is limited to simple, repetitive tasks, but cannot perform such tasks in a fast-paced production environment; she is limited to only occasional interactions with co-workers and supervisors, and only brief, intermittent and superficial public contact; she can concentrate in two hour blocks of time throughout an 8-hour workday, with two 10 to 15 minute breaks, and a 30 to 60 minute lunch period (A.R. 38-40). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had an RFC to work as a laundry worker, domestic maid, and industrial cleaner or night janitor. A.R. 41.

         IV. Discussion.

         Although her arguments are not entirely clear, Plaintiff seems to state three reasons why the ALJ's decision is defective: (1) Plaintiff was diagnosed by her psychiatrist on May 13, 2016 with depersonalization disorder, after the date that the ALJ found medical improvement (Doc. 11 at 3); (2) the ALJ's finding of medical improvement is incorrect because Plaintiff continued to experience delusions after December 1, 2014 (id.); and (3) various mental health issues continue to prevent her from working (id. at 10).[1]

         A. Medical Improvement.

         The Court reads Plaintiff's arguments as challenging the ALJ's interpretation of the medical evidence and disputing that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff specifically challenges the ALJ's crediting of the testimony by the ME, Dr. Kivowitz, finding medical improvement. Doc. 11 at 3; A.R. 1213.

         1. ...


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