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Novak v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

April 10, 2017

LORAIN M. NOVAK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF PLAINTIFF AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS

          John Johnston United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. SYNOPSIS

         Lorain M. Novak (Ms. Novak) brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner) denying her application for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Ms. Novak filed her application for disability insurance benefits on May 8, 2012, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2011, due to a low back fusion, various spondyolisthesis, arthritis, arm and hand numbness, chronic sinus/ear infections, depression, anxiety, narcolepsy, vocal cord dysfunction, and recurring diarrhea. (Doc. 8 at 247-248, 263) Ms. Novak's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 125 and 140)

         An Administrative Law Judge conducted a hearing on August 19, 2014, at which Ms. Novak appeared with counsel. (Id. at 18-36) The ALJ issued his decision on January 9, 2015, in which he concluded that Ms. Novak had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform past relevant work as a child support officer and social services administrator and that other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and was therefore not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Id.)

         On March 2, 2015, Ms. Novak timely requested that the Commissioner review the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 13) The Appeals Council for the Commissioner denied Ms. Novak's request for review on June 3, 2016, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. (Id. at 1-4)

         Ms. Novak timely filed a complaint on July 4, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (Doc. 1) The Court has jurisdiction over this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties consented to the undersigned conducting all further proceedings in this matter. (Doc. 6) The Great Falls Division of the District of Montana is the proper venue because Ms. Novak resides in Cascade County, Montana. (Doc. 1 at 1); 42 U.S.C. 405(g); Local Rule 1.2(c)(2).

         Ms. Novak filed an opening brief on December 12, 2016, requesting that the Court reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the case to cure the Commissioner's claimed errors. (Doc. 12) The Commissioner filed a response brief on December 12, 2016, and Ms. Novak filed a reply brief on January 31, 2017. (Docs. 13 and 15) The motion is ripe for decision.

         Ms. Novak was born on October 10, 1969. (Doc. 8 at 247) She was 42 years old when she filed her application on May 8, 2012, and 45 years old at the time of the ALJ's January 9, 2015 decision. See (Id.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review is limited. The Court may set aside the Commissioner's decision only where the decision is not supported by substantial evidence or where the decision is based on legal error. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence 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); Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006). Substantial evidence has also been described as “more than a mere scintilla” but “less than a preponderance.” Desrosiers v. Sec. of Health and Hum. Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988).

         "The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). This Court must uphold the Commissioner's findings "if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "[I]f evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, " the Court "must defer to the Commissioner's decision." Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 (citing Morgan v. Commissioner, 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999)). This Court "may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Widmark, 454 F.3d at 1070 (quoting Edlund, 253 F.3d at 1156).Where 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. Barhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         The Court must consider the record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Green v. Sheckler, 803 F.2d 528, 530 (9th Cir. 1986). The Court may reject the findings not supported by the record, but it may not substitute its findings for those of the Commissioner. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         III. BURDEN OF PROOF

         A claimant is disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act if the claimant demonstrates by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) the claimant has a “medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months”; and (2) the impairment or impairments are of such severity that, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience, the claimant is not only unable to perform previous work but also cannot “engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Schneider v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 974 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing 42 U.S.C. §1382(a)(3)(A)-(B)).

         The Commissioner's regulations provide a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953 (9th Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, and the Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Id. at 954. The five steps of the inquiry are:

1. Is the claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? If so, the claimant is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. If not, proceed to step two. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).
2. Is the claimant's impairment severe? If so, proceed to step three. If not, the claimant is not disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c).
3. Does the impairment “meet or equal” one of a list of specific impairments described in 20 C.F.R. Part 220, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant is disabled. If not, proceed to step four. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d).
4. Is the claimant able to do any work that he or she has done in the past? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
5. Is the claimant able to do any other work? If so, the claimant is not disabled. If not, the claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).

Id.

         IV. BACKGROUND

         A. ALJ's determination

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Ms. Novak has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2011, the alleged onset date of her disability. (Doc. 8 at 20) At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Novak has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; spondylolisthesis; polyarthalgia; carpal tunnel syndrome; diabetes mellitus, type II; and obstructive sleep apnea. (Id. at 20)

         At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Novak did not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or was medically equal to ...


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