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Glendenning v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Montana

September 24, 2019

SHARYL L. GLENDENNING, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On February 26, 2018, Plaintiff Sharyl L. Glendenning (“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 (“Commissioner”) regarding the denial of her claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 416 and 423. (Doc. 1.) On June 29, 2018, the Commissioner filed the Administrative Record (“A.R.”). (Doc. 6.)

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, seeking remand or reversal of Defendant’s denial and an award of disability benefits. (Doc. 11.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review. (Docs. 12, 13.)

         For the reasons set forth herein, and after careful consideration of the record and applicable law, the Court finds the ALJ’s decision should be REMANDED for further administrative proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits on December 29, 2014.[1](A.R. 323-326.) Plaintiff alleges she has been unable to work since April 25, 2013 due to her disabling conditions. (A.R. 323.) According to the record, Plaintiff was last insured for disability benefits on December 31, 2014. Therefore, she must establish disability on or before that date to qualify for disability benefits.

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s application initially on March 13, 2015, and upon reconsideration on July 29, 2015. (A.R. 234-239.)

         On August 7, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing on the Social Security Administration’s determination. (A.R. 240.) Administrative Law Judge Michele Kelley (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on October 18, 2016. (A.R. 39-73.) On November 9, 2016, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (A.R. 19-38.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the decision by the Appeals Council. (A.R. 10.) On January 6, 2018, the 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) (“Where evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the ALJ’s conclusion that must be upheld.”); Flaten, 44 F.3d at 1457 (“If the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the Secretary’s conclusion, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary.”). However, 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) she 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 she 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 the 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 residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id. at 1100 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3)).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. The Hearing

         Plaintiff’s hearing was held before the ALJ in Billings, Montana on October 18, 2016. (A.R. 39-73.) Plaintiff testified that she was unable to work because of bilateral tarsal tunnel syndrome with significant scarring, meniscal tear of the left knee, degenerative arthritis in both knees, and degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine. (A.R. 46.) Plaintiff explained that her ailments prevent her from performing even sedentary work. Id.

         Regarding her physical limitations, Plaintiff testified that she has swelling and pain in her feet. She explained that has she had multiple surgeries on her feet to alleviate her problems. (A.R. 50-51.) Plaintiff stated the pain in her left foot returned after the surgeries, leaving her unable to stand at her job, which required her to miss work. (A.R. 51.) Her last surgery was in July 2010. Id.

         Plaintiff also discussed how her foot problems have restricted her mobility. She testified she is only able to walk for fifteen minutes, and she can only stand for five to ten minutes. (A.R. 53.) After walking or standing she must take a break because of the pain, swelling, and imbalance associated with her leg and foot problems. Id. She also testified that she can sit in a chair without elevating her legs for only five minutes before sitting becomes painful. (A.R. 54.) Plaintiff explained that her left leg becomes swollen more often, and is more problematic, than her right leg. Id. Nevertheless, she does have problems with her right knee as well. Id.

         Plaintiff testified that at home she elevates her legs on her ottoman “all the time” – “at least 75 percent of the day.” (A.R. 55-56.) If she for some reason cannot elevate her legs, she “just deal[s] with it” by moving and stretching them. (A.R. 57.) She explained the pain she experiences is severe at times and interferes with her ability to focus. Id.

         Plaintiff also testified that she began experiencing anxiety when her foot problems started. (A.R. 51.) She explained that when the anxiety occurs, she becomes hot, sweaty, shaky, and loses focus with her eyes. (A.R. 52.) The episodes last about fifteen minutes, and it takes her two to three hours to recover from each episode because she is so ...


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