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Merrill-Russell v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 9, 2019

Jodi Merrill-Russell, Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE JOHN TUCHI UNITED STATES OH DISTRICT JUDGE

         At issue is the denial of Plaintiff Jodi Merrill-Russell's Application for Disability Insurance Benefits by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) with this Court seeking judicial review of that denial, and the Court now addresses Plaintiff's Opening Brief (Doc. 12, Pl. Br.), Defendant Social Security Commissioner's Responsive Brief requesting remand pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (Doc. 17, Def. Br. & Mot.), and Plaintiff's Reply Brief (Doc. 20). The Court has reviewed the briefs and Administrative Record (Doc. 11, R.) and now reverses the Administrative Law Judge's decision (R. at 15-26) as upheld by the Appeals Council (R. at 1-3).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on January 28, 2015 for an amended period of disability beginning on September 17, 2014. (R. at 15.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on April 2, 2015, and on reconsideration on July 27, 2015. (R. at 15.) Plaintiff then testified at a video hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on August 15, 2017. (R. at 15.) The ALJ denied her claims on January 5, 2018. (R. at 15- 26.) On November 23, 2018, the Appeals Council denied her request for review of the ALJ's decision. (R. at 1-3). The present appeal followed.

         The Court has reviewed the medical evidence in its entirety and finds it unnecessary to provide a complete summary here. The pertinent medical evidence will be discussed in addressing the issues raised by the parties. In short, upon considering the medical records and opinions, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has severe impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shoulder issues, status post bunionectomy, and headaches. (R. at 15.) However, because the amended onset date was based only on her mental impairments, Plaintiff's appeal focuses only on her PTSD. (Pl. Br. at 3.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence and opinions and concluded that Plaintiff “did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404.” (R. at 17-18.) He then determined that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work; with respect to the mental component of the RFC, he found that Plaintiff “can perform non-public, simple, routine tasks and have no more than occasional superficial interaction with co-workers or supervisors in a habituated setting.” (R. at 19.) Finally, based on the testimony of the Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform the requirements of representative work such as electrical accessories assembler, document preparer, and small parts assembler. (R. at 25.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In determining whether to reverse an ALJ's decision, the district court reviews only those issues raised by the party challenging the decision. See Lewis v. Apfel, 236 F.3d 503, 517 n.13 (9th Cir. 2001). The court may set aside the SSA's disability determination only if it 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, but less than a preponderance; it is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion considering the record as a whole. Id. To determine 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. 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled for purposes of the 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, but 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 presently 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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. Part 404. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically found to be disabled. Id. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step four. Id. At step four, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC and determines whether the claimant is still capable of performing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 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 in the national economy based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. If not, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff raises four arguments for the Court's consideration: (1) the ALJ erred in failing to consider the Veterans Administration's (“VA”) 80% service-connected disability rating of Plaintiff and the medical opinions of Dr. Peter Sanchez; (2) the ALJ erred in formulating Plaintiff's mental RFC by failing to account for Plaintiff's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace; (3) the ALJ erred in discounting the report of Plaintiff's counselor and social worker, Crockett Finch; and (4) the ALJ erred in rejecting Plaintiff's symptom testimony. Defendant concedes the first point. However, Defendant requests that the Court remand for further proceedings, rather than for a computation of benefits-the relief that Plaintiff seeks. Thus, the Court will address all four arguments in turn.

         A. The ALJ erred in failing to address the VA's disability determination and treatment reports.

         The VA determined that Plaintiff has a service-connected disability rating of 80%. (R. at 612.) While a VA determination of disability is not conclusive upon an ALJ, the ALJ must “give great weight” to it. Luther v. Berryhill, 891 F.3d 872, 876 (9th Cir. 2018). Failure to do so is legal error and must result in a reversal and remand. McCartey v. Massanari, 298 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2018).

         It is undisputed that the ALJ failed to evaluate the VA's disability determination- he did not mention it at all, either during the hearing or in his decision. Accordingly, the Court remands on the grounds that the ALJ committed clear legal error. “We note that, on remand, the ALJ is not compelled to adopt the conclusions of the VA's decisions wholesale, but if [he] deviates from final VA decisions, [he] may do so based only on contrary evidence that is ‘persuasive, specific, ...


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