United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division
ANGELINA L. LEON, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
TIMOTHY J. CAVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.”). (Doc. 9.)
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.)
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
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.)
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.)
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
Scope of Review
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).
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)).
Determination of Disability
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.
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),
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),
Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir.
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. §
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.)
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 ...