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Marrs-Espinoza v. Colvin

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

March 17, 2015

VALERIE J. MARRS-ESPINOZA, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO REMAND FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS (Re: Docket Nos. 21, 28)

PAUL S. GREWAL, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Valerie J. Marrs-Espinoza suffers from a combination of physical and mental impairments, namely back pain and resulting anxiety and depression.[1] After Marrs-Espinoza applied for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner of Social Security found that she had a disability beginning August 1, 1998.[2] In 2002, the Commissioner conducted a Continuing Disability Review and found Marrs-Espinoza remained disabled.[3] In 2011, the Commissioner again conducted a CDR but found that Marrs-Espinoza no longer suffered from a disability as of March 30, 2011.[4] After a state agency disability hearing, the CDR decision was upheld. An Administrative Law Judge upheld this determination upon reconsideration.[5] The ALJ also found that only Marrs-Espinoza's "disorders of the back, s/p back fusion" were medically determinable, [6] and concluded that neither Marrs-Espinoza nor her treating physician, Dr. Maureen Miner, were credible.[7] The ALJ found Marrs-Espinoza's condition had improved, though he was ambiguous as to whether she had the residual functional capacity to perform light work including past relevant work.[8]

The Commissioner agrees with Marrs-Espinoza that the ALJ made errors in his determination and requests remand for further administrative proceedings.[9] Where the parties disagree is on what happens next. The Commissioner urges that Marrs-Espinoza should be permitted to present additional evidence, including third-party testimony and further medical records, to an ALJ.[10] Marrs-Espinoza argues that the court should hold that the ALJ's record was incomplete, the analysis faulty in allocating weight and the findings ultimately improper, such that on remand the Commissioner must simply reinstate Marrs-Espinoza's disability benefits.[11]

Though there is no doubt that the ALJ significantly erred, because the record is incomplete the court must allow the ALJ the opportunity to evaluate Marrs-Espinoza's disability in light of a complete record. The court therefore DENIES Marrs-Espinoza's motion for summary judgment and for reinstatement of benefits and GRANTS the Commissioner's motion to remand the case for further proceedings.[12]

I.

Through its administrative law judges, the Commissioner of Social Security determines the continued disability status of claimants by following an eight-step evaluation process.[13]

At step one, the ALJ must determine if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is no longer considered to have a disability.[14] If not, the ALJ continues to step two.

At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.[15] If so, her disability status continues.[16] If not, the ALJ moves on to step three.

At step three, the ALJ must determine whether medical improvement has occurred.[17] Medical improvement is any decrease in medical severity of the impairment(s) as established by improvement in symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings.[18] If medical improvement has occurred, the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. If not, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step.

At step four, the ALJ must determine whether medical improvement is related to the ability to work.[19] Medical improvement is related to the ability to work if it results in an increase in the claimant's RFC to perform basic work activities.[20] If medical improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to do work, the ALJ moves on to step five. If the medical improvement is related to the claimant's ability to do work, the ALJ proceeds to the sixth step.

At step five, the ALJ must determine if an exception applies to step three's "no medical improvement" or step four's "medical improvement not related to the claimant's ability to work."[21] If none apply, the claimant's disability continues. If an exception applies under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(e), the claimant's disability ends-and these exceptions may be considered at any point in the process. If an exception applies under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(d), the analysis proceeds to step six.

At step six, the ALJ must determine whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe.[22] If all current impairments in combination do not significantly limit the claimant's ability to do basic work activities, the claimant's disability ends. If the current impairments do significantly limit the claimant's ability to do basic work activities, the ALJ continues to step seven.

At step seven, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC based on the current impairments and determine if she can perform past relevant work.[23] If the claimant has the capacity to perform past relevant work, her disability has ended. If not, the ALJ continues to step eight.

At step eight, the ALJ must determine whether other work exists that the claimant can perform, given her RFC assessment and considering her age, education and past work experience.[24] If the claimant can perform other work, she is no longer disabled. ...


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