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Kite v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

March 25, 2019

TIMOTHY LEE KITE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On December 2, 2017, Plaintiff Timothy Lee Kite (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting judicial review of the final administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”) regarding the denial of Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. (Doc. 1.) On March 5, 2018, the Commissioner filed the Administrative Record (“A.R.”) (Doc. 8).

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, seeking reversal of the Commissioner's denial and remand for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. 13.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for the Court's review. (Docs. 14-15.)

         For the reasons set forth herein, and after careful consideration of the record and the applicable law, the Court hereby finds Plaintiff's motion should be GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on December 17, 2014. (A.R. 161-62.) Plaintiff alleged he has been unable to work since July 17, 2014 due to his disabling condition. (A.R. 161.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application initially on June 1, 2015, and upon reconsideration on November 3, 2015. (A.R. 74-84; 85-98.)

         On December 18, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (A.R. 107-08.) Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Kilroy (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on November 10, 2016. (A.R. 37-73.) On January 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff was disabled from July 17, 2014 through April 28, 2016, but had medically improved to the point he was no longer disabled as of April 29, 2016. (A.R. 19-32.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the decision, and on October 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (A.R. 1-6.) Thereafter, Plaintiff filed the instant action.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Scope of Review

         The Social Security Act allows unsuccessful claimants to seek judicial review of the Commissioner's final agency decision. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). The scope of judicial review is limited. The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision unless it “is not supported by substantial evidence or it is based upon legal error.” Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). See also Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 n.1 (9th Cir. 2005) (“We may reverse the ALJ's decision to deny benefits only if it is based upon legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence.”); Flaten v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 44 F.3d 1453, 1457 (9th Cir. 1995).

         “Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Tidwell, 161 F.3d at 601 (citing Jamerson v. Chater, 112 F.3d 1064, 1066 (9th Cir. 1997)). “Substantial evidence is relevant evidence which, considering the record as a whole, a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. In considering the record as a whole, the Court must weigh both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusions. Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985); Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975)). The Court must uphold the denial of benefits if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005); Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457. “However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a ‘specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir.2006) (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir.1989)). The Court reviews only the reasons provided by the ALJ in the disability determination and may not affirm on a ground upon which the ALJ did not rely. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007).

         Further, even if the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusions, the Court must set aside the decision if the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and reaching a conclusion. Benitez v. Califano, 573 F.2d 653, 655 (9th Cir. 1978) (quoting Flake v. Gardner, 399 F.2d 532, 540 (9th Cir. 1968)).

         B. Determination of Disability

          To qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act, a claimant must show two things: (1) he suffers from a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of twelve months or more, or would result in death; and (2) the impairment renders the claimant incapable of performing the work he previously performed, or any other substantial gainful employment which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 423(d)(2)(A). A claimant must meet both requirements to be classified as disabled. Id.

         The Commissioner makes the assessment of disability through a five-step sequential evaluation process. If an applicant is found to be “disabled” or “not disabled” at any step, there is no need to proceed further. Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1003 (9th Cir. 2005) (quoting Schneider v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 223 F.3d 968, 974 (9th Cir. 2000)). The five steps are:

1. Is claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? If so, then 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, then 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 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then 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, then the claimant is not disabled. If not, proceed to step five. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f).
5. Is the claimant able to do any other work? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. If not, then the claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g).

Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         Although the ALJ must assist the claimant in developing a record, the claimant bears the burden of proof during the first four steps, while the Commissioner bears the burden of proof at the fifth step. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098, n.3 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1512(d)). At step five, the Commissioner must “show that the claimant can perform some other work that exists in ‘significant numbers' in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's ...


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