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Lara M. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 15, 2019

LARA M., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STACIE F. BECKERMAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Lara M. (“Plaintiff”) brings this appeal challenging the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner”) denial of her applications for child insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.[2] The only issue in dispute on appeal is whether the Court should remand this case for further proceedings or an award of benefits. The Court has jurisdiction to hear this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants in part the Commissioner's motion to remand and remands this case for an award of benefits.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court may set aside a denial of benefits only if the Commissioner's findings are “‘not supported by substantial evidence or [are] based on legal error.'” Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence is defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla [of evidence] but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         The district court “cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision ‘simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). Instead, the district court must consider the entire record, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Id. Where the record as a whole can support either a grant or a denial of Social Security benefits, the district court “‘may not substitute [its] judgment for the [Commissioner's].'” Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222 (quoting Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007)).

         BACKGROUND

         I. PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATIONS

         Plaintiff was born in August 1987, making her twenty-one years old on December 1, 2008, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 24, 81, 97.) Plaintiff graduated from high school and earned an associate's degree. (Tr. 30, 34, 53, 55.) Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a medical records coder and forest worker. (Tr. 34, 72-74.) In her applications for Social Security benefits, Plaintiff alleges disability due primarily to bipolar disorder and depression. (Tr. 54, 62, 1210.)

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and upon reconsideration, and on April 22, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 24.) Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing held on February 28, 2017. (Tr. 50-79.) On April 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's applications for benefits. (Tr. 24-36.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         II.THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS

         A claimant is considered disabled if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant can return to any past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 724-25. The claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). If the claimant fails to meet the burden at any of those steps, the claimant is not disabled. Id.; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987).

         The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five of the sequential analysis, where the Commissioner must show the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954 (citations omitted).

         III.THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if Plaintiff is disabled. (Tr. 24-36.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2008, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 26.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “[B]ipolar disorder; major depressive disorder; [and] gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).” (Tr. 26.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment. (Tr. 27.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, subject to these limitations: (1) Plaintiff cannot be exposed to workplace hazards, such as moving machinery and unprotected heights, (2) Plaintiff can “understand, remember, and carry out only short and simple instructions and can only make simple work-related judgments and decisions, ” and (3) Plaintiff can have no more than “frequent interactive contact” with the general public, coworkers, and supervisors. (Tr. 28.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a medical records coder and forest worker. (Tr. 34.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that she could perform, including work as a photocopy machine operator, dishwasher, and shelving clerk. (Tr. 35.)

         DISCUSSION

         As discussed above, the only issue in dispute on appeal is whether the Court should remand this case for further administrative proceedings or an award of benefits. As explained below, Plaintiff satisfies the credit-as-true standard, and the Court does not have serious doubt about whether Plaintiff is disabled. Accordingly, the Court grants in part the Commissioner's motion to remand and remands this case for an award of benefits.

         I. APPLICABLE LAW

         “Generally when a court of appeals reverses an administrative determination, ‘the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.'” Benecke v. Barnhart, 379 F.3d 587, 595 (9th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). In a number of cases, however, the Ninth Circuit has “stated or implied that it would be an abuse of discretion for a district court not to remand for an award of benefits when [the three-part credit-as-true standard is] met.” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1021 (9th Cir. 2014). The credit-as-true standard is met if the following conditions are satisfied: (1) “the ALJ has failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting evidence, whether claimant testimony or medical opinion, ” (2) “if the improperly discredited evidence were credited as true, the ALJ would be required to find the claimant disabled on remand, ” and (3) “the record has been fully developed and further administrative proceedings would serve no useful purpose.” Id. at 1020 (citations omitted).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. ...


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