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Leon v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

September 26, 2019

ANGELINA L. LEON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Angelina L. Leon (“Plaintiff”) has 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 her claim for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. (Doc. 2.) The Commissioner has filed the Administrative Record (“A.R.”).[1] (Doc. 9.)

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, seeking reversal of Defendant’s denial and remand for an award of disability benefits, or alternatively for further administrative proceedings. (Doc. 11.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for the Court’s review. (Docs. 16, 17.)

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


         Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on March 24, 2015. (A.R. 194-206.) Plaintiff initially alleged she had been unable to work since March 13, 2015 due to her disabling conditions. (A.R. 194.) But she subsequently amended her onset date to September 10, 2015. (A.R. 189.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff’s applications on August 7, 2015, and upon reconsideration on December 18, 2015. (A.R. 73-122.)

         Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (A.R. 134-35.) Administrative Law Judge Lloyd E. Hartford (the “ALJ”) held a hearing on November 7, 2016. (A.R. 32-72.) At the hearing, Plaintiff confirmed that she wished to amend her alleged onset date to September 2015, and the ALJ granted the request. (A.R. 36-38.) On February 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (A.R. 16-26.)

         Plaintiff requested review of the decision, and on April 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (A.R. 1-6.) Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed the instant action.


         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 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 residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id. at 1100 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(3)).


         A. The Hearing

         A hearing was held before the ALJ in Billings, Montana on November 7, 2016. (A.R. 32-72.) Plaintiff testified she currently works part-time. (A.R. 51.) She is employed through a program called Experience Works, which is a work program for individuals over age 55. (A.R. 53.) Through that program, Plaintiff works at the Montana Rescue Mission approximately 20 hours per week sorting and pricing linens. (A.R. 51-53.) Plaintiff stated that her diabetes, arthritic feet and her knee pain prevent her from working more than part-time. (A.R. 65-66.) At one point, Plaintiff applied to work directly for the Rescue Mission. (A.R. 54.) But she was not hired because she cannot stand to cashier or lift large bags of donations. (A.R. 54-55.)

         As to her physical limitations, Plaintiff testified that she cannot stand more than ten to fifteen minutes at a time because her feet hurt, and her knees swell. (A.R. 55.) She also cannot sit for an extended period of time because her back hurts and her legs cramp. (A.R. 55.) She estimated the longest she can sit is an hour and a half. (A.R. 57.) Plaintiff stated that she is allowed to sit and stand at will while she works at the Rescue Mission. (A.R. 50.) Plaintiff indicated she also has difficulty with stairs, and that she can only walk about 25 feet before she needs to take a break. (A.R. 57.) Plaintiff stated she does not lift more than 20 pounds. (A.R. 59.) Plaintiff uses an electric cart to buy groceries because she cannot get around the store without the assistance. (A.R. 57.)

         Plaintiff testified that on a typical work day she gets up around 6:00 a.m. (A.R. 62.) It takes her about two hours to get ready for work, and during this time has to take 3 to 4 rest breaks. (A.R. 63.) Plaintiff’s shifts are usually three to five hours long. (A.R. 55.) Plaintiff indicated that after a five-hour work day, she is very tired and has to rest. (A.R. 55.) She usually goes home and lays down for 20 to 30 minutes. (A.R. 59.) She then prepares something to eat, and then lays back down for another 20 to 30 minutes. (A.R. 60.) Afterward, she will do dishes and then go to bed between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. (A.R. 60.)

         At the beginning of the hearing, the ALJ asked Plaintiff’s counsel whether she was aware of any additional medical records that she wanted to submit after the hearing. (A.R. 35.) Plaintiff’s counsel indicated there may be an additional x-ray report from August 2015 that she was going to try and obtain. (A.R. 35.) In response, the ALJ noted that another one of Plaintiff’s medical records from August 2016 also referenced an x-ray of Plaintiff’s knees, but that he was unable to find the x-ray report in the file. (A.R. 35.) Plaintiff’s counsel indicated she would obtain both x-ray reports. (A.R. 36.)

         Plaintiff’s counsel also advised the ALJ that Plaintiff had amended her onset date. (A.R. 36.) Counsel explained that Plaintiff was having problems with her knees, but the issues got worse after she experienced a fall in September 2015. (A.R. 37.) Therefore, she amended her onset date to September 10, 2015. (A.R. 37-38; 189.) The ALJ granted Plaintiff’s request, stating “I’ll grant your motion to amend the onset date to that.” (A.R. 38.)

         Following these exchanges with counsel, the ALJ asked Plaintiff whether she had undergone knee replacement surgery. (A.R. 44.) She said she had not. (A.R. 44.) Plaintiff explained that she needed to wait to have ...

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