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West v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

January 29, 2019

REBECCA WEST, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING DECISION OF ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY AND REMANDING FOR FURTHER ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

          Derrick K. Watson, United States District Judge.

         On March 13, 2018, Plaintiff Rebecca West appealed the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's denial of her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. In her Opening Brief, West asks this Court to review (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) failure to identify skills West obtained from prior work constitutes reversible error, and (2) whether the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence. After carefully reviewing the record and the arguments of counsel in their briefs and during oral argument, the Court concludes that this case must be remanded for further administrative proceedings as set forth below.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Review of Disability Claims

         A five-step process exists for evaluating whether a person is disabled under the Social Security Act (SSA). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; 20 C.F.R § 416.920. First, the claimant must demonstrate that she is not currently involved in any substantial, gainful activity. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). Second, the claimant must show a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c) Third, if the impairment matches or is equivalent to an established listing under the governing regulations, the claimant is judged conclusively disabled. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         If the claimant's impairment does not match or is not equivalent to an established listing, the Commissioner makes a finding about the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform work. Id. § 404.1520(e); § 416.920(e). The evaluation then proceeds to a fourth step, which requires the claimant to show her impairment, in light of the RFC, prevents her from performing work she performed in the past. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f); §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (e), (f). If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(f); § 416.920(f). If the claimant cannot perform her past work, though, the evaluation proceeds to a fifth step. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g); §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g). At this final step, the Commissioner must demonstrate that (1) based upon the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience, the claimant can perform other work, and (2) such work is available in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. § 404.1560(c); § 416.960(c); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999) (explaining that, at Step Five, the burden moves to the Commissioner). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is deemed disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1); § 416.920(g)(1).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         On November 16, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding West “not disabled” under the SSA. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 33. At Step One of the evaluation process, the ALJ determined that West had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of April 1, 2007. Id. at 24. At Step Two, the ALJ determined that West had the following severe impairments: left shoulder rotator cuff tear and adhesive capsulitis; osteoporosis and degenerative disc disease in the lumbar spine and hips with left hip sacroiliitis; and minor motor seizures. Id. at 25-27. At Step Three, the ALJ determined that West did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the governing regulations. Id. at 28.

         Before reaching Step Four, the ALJ determined that West had the following RFC:

she can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour period, and sit 6 hours in an 8-hour period (i.e., light exertional-level work as defined in [the governing regulations]); she can occasionally push and/or pull with her left upper extremity; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs (but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds); she can frequently balance; she can occasionally stoop, kneel, and crouch; she can never crawl[;] and[, ] she must avoid all exposures to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights.

Id. at 28-30.

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that West was unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 30. In doing so, the ALJ identified respiratory therapist and emergency medical technician as skilled work West had performed in the past. Id.

         At Step Five, the ALJ determined that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that West could perform. Id. at 31-32. More specifically, a vocational expert stated that, in light of West's RFC, age, education, and work experience, she would be able to perform the skilled job of cardiac monitor technician and the semi-skilled jobs of phlebotomist and first aid attendant. Id. This final determination resulted in the ALJ finding that West was not disabled under the SSA at any time from April 1, 2007 through November 16, 2016, the date of the decision. Id. at 32.

         III. The Appeals Council's Decision

         The Appeals Council granted various requests from West for more time before acting on her case. Id. at 10, 13. Thereafter, West submitted for the Appeals Council's review medical records from the State of Hawaii Department of Human Services dated July 11, 2014 through July 14, 2016, containing four physical examination reports. Id. at 2, 40-57.

         On September 7, 2017, the Appeals Council denied West's request for review of the ALJ's decision. Id. at 1. With respect to the medical records from the State of Hawaii, the Appeals Council found that “this evidence does not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.” Id. at 2. At the same time, the Appeals Council stated that it “did not consider and exhibit this evidence.” Id.

         IV. This Action

         In her Opening Brief, Dkt. No. 18, West makes two principal arguments. First, she asserts that the ALJ legally erred in failing to specifically identify the skills that could transfer from her prior work to the work the ALJ found she could do. Second, she contends that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, including evidence the ALJ purportedly ignored and evidence submitted to the Appeals ...


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