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Harris v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Nevada

November 28, 2017

BRIAN HARRIS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.



         Plaintiff Brian Harris has submitted an Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (ECF No. 1) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915 along with a proposed Complaint (ECF No. 1-2). The Application and Complaint are referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and LR IB 1-3 of the Local Rules of Practice.

         I. Application to Proceed In Forma Pauperis

         Mr. Harris's Application includes the affidavit required by § 1915(a) showing an inability to prepay fees and costs or give security for them. Accordingly, the request to proceed in forma pauperis will be granted. The court will now review the Complaint.

         II. Screening the Complaint

         After granting a request to proceed in forma pauperis, a federal court must additionally screen the complaint and any amended complaints filed prior to a responsive pleading. Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1129 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (§ 1915(e) “applies to all in forma pauperis complaints”). The simplified pleading standard set forth in Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure[2] applies to all civil actions, with limited exceptions. Alvarez v. Hill, 518 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir. 2008). For purposes of 28 U.S.C. § 1915's screening requirement, a properly pled complaint must therefore provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); see also Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Although Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations, it demands “more than labels and conclusions” or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). A complaint “must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively.” Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011).

         Here, Harris's Complaint challenges a decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denying him “Supplemental Security Income disability benefits” under the Social Security Act.[3] See Compl. (ECF No. 1-2) at ¶ III. To state a valid benefits claim, a complaint must give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Starr, 652 F.3d at 1216. To do so, a complaint should state when and how a plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies with the SSA and the nature of his disability, including when he claims he became disabled. The complaint should also contain a short and concise statement identifying the nature of the plaintiff's disagreement with the SSA's determination and show that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Although this showing need not be made in great detail, it must be presented in sufficient detail for the court to understand the disputed issues so that it can meaningfully screen the complaint. See 4 Soc. Sec. Law & Prac. § 56:4 (2015).

         A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

         Before a plaintiff can sue the SSA in federal court, he must exhaust his administrative remedies. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Bass v. Social Sec. Admin., 872 F.2d 832, 833 (9th Cir. 1989) (“Section 405(g) provides that a civil action may be brought only after (1) the claimant has been party to a hearing held by the Secretary, and (2) the Secretary has made a final decision on the claim”). Generally, if the SSA denies a claimant's application for disability benefits, he can request reconsideration of the decision. If the claim is denied upon reconsideration, a claimant may request a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). If the ALJ denies the claim, a claimant may request review of the decision by the Appeals Council. If the Appeals Council declines to review the ALJ's decision, a claimant may then request review by the United States District Court. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. A civil action for judicial review must be commenced within 60 days after receipt of the Appeals Council's notice of a final decision. Id. See also 20 C.F.R. § 405.501. The SSA assumes that the notice of final decision will be received within five days of the date on the notice unless shown otherwise; thus, an action commenced within 65 days is presumed timely. The civil action must be filed in the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides. 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g).

         In this case, Harris alleges that on September 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. See Compl. ¶ V. Thus, it appears he has exhausted his administrative remedies. Mr. Harris timely commenced this action as the Complaint was filed on October 30, 2017, and the Complaint indicates that he resides within the District of Nevada. See Compl. ¶ II. Accordingly, he has satisfied these prerequisites for judicial review.

         B. Grounds for Mr. Harris's Appeal

         The Complaint seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision benefits and asks the court to reverse that decision, or alternatively, to remand this matter for a new hearing. A district court can affirm, modify, reverse, or remand a decision if plaintiff has exhausted his administrative remedies and timely filed a civil action. However, judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits is limited to determining: (a) whether there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the findings of the Commissioner; and (b) whether the correct legal standards were applied. Morgan v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999).

         In his Complaint, Mr. Harris alleges that he has been disabled since the application date of June 19, 2014, and continuing through the present. See Compl. (ECF No. 1-2) ¶ VI. The medical record indicates he has the following severe impairments: asthma, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and polysubstance abuse / substance addiction disorder. Id. He also alleges the severe impairment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Id. Harris alleges the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) committed the following reversible errors: (1) improperly rejecting of the opinion of the treating counselor (co-signed by a treating psychiatrist), which describes disabling mental limitations; (2) improperly rejecting the claimant's testimony; (3) relying on the vocational expert's testimony regarding jobs, which was inconsistent with the mental limitations in the RFC finding; and (4) failing to fully consider the severity of degenerative disc diseases.

         The Complaint contains sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give the Defendant fair notice of his disagreement with the SSA's final determination. Accordingly, Mr. Harris has stated a ...

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