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Aretha F. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

February 20, 2019

Aretha F., Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David G, Campbell, Senior United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Aretha F. seeks review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, 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. The Commissioner concedes that the Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision was erroneous and requests a remand for further proceedings. Doc. 17. Because the Court finds no serious doubts as to Plaintiff's continued disability, the ALJ's decision will be vacated and the matter remanded for an award of benefits.

         I. Background.

         Plaintiff is a 40-year-old female who previously worked as an assistant teacher, a dog groomer, a journalist, and a morning show producer. A.R. 56-59. On February 9, 2016, she applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning December 31, 2015. A.R. 16. On February 7, 2018, Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at a hearing before the ALJ. Id. On March 23, 2018 the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled from December 31, 2015 through January 29, 2018, but that she was able to work as of January 30, 2018. A.R. 33. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. A.R. 1-3.

         The 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).

         II. 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) she is not currently working, (2) she has a severe impairment, and (3) this impairment meets or equals a listed impairment or (4) her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) prevents her performance of any past relevant work. If the claimant meets her burden through step three, the Commissioner must find her disabled. If the inquiry proceeds to step four and the claimant shows that she is incapable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant is capable of other work suitable for her 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 March 31, 2022, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 31, 2015. A.R. 20. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), ETOH use disorder, fibromyalgia, radiculopathy, degenerative disc disease, foraminal stenosis, and obesity. Id. at 19. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals an impairment listed in Appendix 1 to Subpart P of 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. Id. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following RFC for December 31, 2015 through January 29, 2018:

[Plaintiff can] perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following limitations: the claimant should avoid climbing ladder/ropes/scaffolds; the claimant can occasionally climb ramps/stairs; the claimant can frequently bend, stoop, kneel, balance, crouch and crawl; the claimant should avoid all hazards; the claimant is capable of performing jobs that have a reasoning level 3 or below; the claimant can have occasional interaction with public, coworkers and supervisors; the claimant will be absent from work more than 1 day per month.

Id. at 24-25. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 26. The ALJ then determined that, from December 31, 2015 through January 29, 2018, there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed. Id. But the ALJ found that Plaintiff's disability ended on January 30, 2018 because the record reveals medical improvement in her symptoms of depression and overall joint and body pain. A.R. 30.

         Once an ALJ finds a claimant disabled, the ALJ follows an eight-step sequential evaluation 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 (6) whether all the claimant's current combined impairments are severe. The ALJ then assesses (7) the claimant's RFC based on current impairments and determines whether he can perform past relevant work, and (8) whether the claimant can perform other work that is suitable for his RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medical impairment was related to her ability to work because there has been an increase in her residual functional capacity. A.R. 30. Beginning January 30, 2018, the ALJ assigned Plaintiff the following RFC:

[Plaintiff can] perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following limitations: the claimant can occasionally climb ramps/stairs; the claimant can frequently bend, stoop, kneel, balance, crouch and crawl; the claimant should avoid all hazards; the claimant is capable of performing jobs that have a reasoning level 3 or below; the claimant can have occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and supervisors.

A.R. 31. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was still unable to perform past relevant work, but that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as document preparer, surveillance ...


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