United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division
LORAIN M. NOVAK, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN FAVOR OF PLAINTIFF
AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS
Johnston United States Magistrate Judge.
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
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.)
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)
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
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
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.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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).
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.
BURDEN OF PROOF
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)).
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
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),
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. §§
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).
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)
three, the ALJ found that Ms. Novak did not have an
impairment, or combination of impairments, that met or was
medically equal to ...