United States District Court, D. Hawaii
ORDER REVERSING THE DECISION OF THE COMMISSIONER OF
SOCIAL SECURITY AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER
C. Kay Sr. United States District Judge.
reasons to be discussed in its written order, the Court
REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner and REMANDS for
further administrative proceedings consistent with this
3, 2012, Plaintiff Christopher Marcus Betts
(“Plaintiff”) filed an application for Social
Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits.
AR 18. Plaintiff also filed for supplemental security income
(“SSI”) on June 14, 2012. Id. In both
applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning October
25, 2010. Id. The application was initially denied
on November 23, 2012, and upon reconsideration on September
12, 2013. AR 121-25, 128-36. Plaintiff then requested a
hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), which was held on August 11, 2014. AR
36-64. On October 31, 2014, the ALJ issued her written
decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 30. Plaintiff
filed a request with the Appeals Council to review the
ALJ's decision on December 16, 2014. AR 12-14. Plaintiff
passed away on January 11, 2015. Complaint ¶ 4; AR 614,
638. The Appeals Council denied his request and adopted the
ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commission on
June 20, 2016. AR 2-7.
former wife, on behalf of Plaintiff, filed a complaint on
June 26, 2016 seeking a review of the denial of
Plaintiff's applications for SSDI and SSI benefits. ECF
No. 1. On March 15, 2017, Plaintiff filed his opening brief.
ECF No. 14 (“Opening Br.”). Defendant, the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”),
filed her answering brief on May 4, 2017. ECF No. 16
(“Ans. Br.”). Plaintiff filed his reply brief on
May 15, 2017. ECF No. 17 (“Reply Br.”).
Court held a hearing on June 13, 2017 regarding
Plaintiff's requested review of the Commissioner's
district court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g) to review final decisions of the Commissioner of
decision by the Commissioner denying Social Security
disability benefits will not be disturbed by the reviewing
district court if it is free of legal error and supported by
substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Dale v. Colvin, 823 F.3d 941, 943 (9th Cir. 2016)
(reviewing a district court's decision de novo). Even if
a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it
“will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply
proper legal standards.” See Gutierrez v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 740 F.3d 519, 523 (9th Cir.
determining the existence of substantial evidence, the
administrative record must be considered as a whole, weighing
the evidence that both supports and detracts from the
Commissioner's factual conclusions. See id.
“Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla but
less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. (internal quotation marks
omitted). “If the evidence can reasonably support
either affirming or reversing, the reviewing court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner.”
Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Rather,
courts “leave it to the ALJ to determine credibility,
resolve conflicts in the testimony, and resolve ambiguities
in the record.” Treichler v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 775 F.3d 1090, 1098 (9th Cir. 2014).
establish a claimant's eligibility for disability
benefits under the Social Security Act, it must be shown
that: (a) the claimant suffers from a medically determinable
physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result
in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than twelve months; and (b) the
impairment renders the claimant incapable of performing the
work that the claimant previously performed and incapable of
performing any other substantial gainful employment that
exists in the national economy.” Tackett v.
Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); see
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A claimant must satisfy both
requirements in order to qualify as “disabled”
under the Social Security Act. Tackett, 180 F.3d at
The Social Security Administration's Five-Step Process
for Determining Disability
Social Security regulations set forth a five-step sequential
process for determining whether a claimant is disabled.
Ukolov v. Barnhart, 420 F.3d 1002, 1003 (9th Cir.
2005); see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. “If a
claimant is found to be ‘disabled' or ‘not
disabled' at any step in the sequence, there is no need
to consider subsequent steps.” Ukolov, 420
F.3d at 1003 (citations omitted in original). The claimant
bears the burden of proof as to steps one through four,
whereas the burden shifts to the Social Security
Administration (“SSA”) for step five.
Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098.
one the ALJ will consider a claimant's work activity, if
any. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds the
claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity he will
determine that the claimant is not disabled, regardless of
the claimant's medical condition, age, education, or work
experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Substantial gainful
activity is work that is defined as both substantial - i.e.
work activity involving significant physical or mental
activities - and gainful - i.e. work activity done for pay or
profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the
claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the
analysis proceeds to step two. Tackett, 180 F.3d at
two requires the ALJ to consider the medical severity of the
claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)
(4)(ii). Only if the claimant has an impairment or
combination of impairments that “significantly limits
[his] physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities” will the analysis proceed to step three. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If not, the ALJ will find the
claimant is not disabled and the analysis stops. 20 C.F.R.
severity of the claimant's impairments is also considered
at step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Here,
the ALJ will determine whether the claimant's impairments
meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment
specifically described in the regulations. Id.;
see also 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If
the impairments do meet or equal these criteria, the claimant
is deemed disabled and the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If not, the analysis proceeds to step
four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).
four first requires the ALJ to determine the claimant's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”).
Id. RFC is defined as the most the claimant can
still do in a work setting despite his physical and mental
limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In assessing a
claimant's RFC, the ALJ will consider all of the relevant
evidence in the claimant's case record regarding both
severe and non-severe impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545.
This assessment is then used to determine whether the
claimant can still perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(e). Past relevant work is defined as
“work that [the claimant has] done within the past 15
years, that was substantial gainful activity, and that lasted
long enough for [the claimant] to learn to do it.” 20
C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(1). The ALJ will find that the
claimant is not disabled if he can still perform his past
relevant work, at which point the analysis will end.
Otherwise, the ALJ moves to step five.
fifth and final step, the ALJ will once again consider the
claimant's RFC, as well as his age, education, and work
experience, in order to determine whether the claimant can
perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Here,
the Commissioner is responsible for providing “evidence
that demonstrates that other work exists in significant
numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can
do.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2). If the claimant
is unable to perform other work, he is deemed disabled; if he
can make an adjustment to other available work, he is
considered not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).
The ALJ's Analysis
found that at step one, Plaintiff had not engaged in gainful
activity since October 25, 2010, the alleged onset date, and
at step two, that he suffered from the following severe
impairments: cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension,
nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder, mood disorder, and a history of alcohol abuse. AR
20-21. Plaintiff disagrees with this determination because he
also believes that he had a severe impairment of psoriasis.
Opening Br. at 5.
third step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or a combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of an impairment listed in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 21. The ALJ did
not discuss whether Plaintiff met listing 8.05 which covers
skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC
to perform light work. AR 22. That is, he could: lift and
carry up to 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally
and stand, walk, or sit 6 hours out of an 8-hour workday with
customary breaks. Id. In addition, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff could:
occasionally kneel, stoop, crawl, and crouch; occasionally
climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; frequently use the upper extremities for fine and
gross manipulations and reaching in all directions; sustain
concentration and attention, persistence and pace in two hour
blocks of time to complete a normal workday . . . interact
and respond appropriately to coworkers, supervisors, and the
general public . . . respond appropriately to routine changes
in the work setting . . . understand, remember, and carry out
. . . both detailed and complex tasks; and he would be off
task 5% of the workday due to distractions from
psychologically based symptoms.
Id. Based on this RFC, the ALJ determined at step
four that Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as
a “drafter designer” and denied Plaintiff's
claim on this basis. AR 29-30. Plaintiff disagrees and believes
that he was unable to perform past relevant work. Opening Br.
Whether the ALJ Properly Considered Evidence of
Whether the ALJ Properly Evaluated Dr. ...