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Stoffel v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

April 29, 2013

JILL L. STOFFEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

JANICE M. STEWART, Magistrate Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Jill L. Stoffel, ("Stoffel"), seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 USC §§ 401-33. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 USC § 405(g). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits.[2]

ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

Stoffel protectively filed for SSI on February 9, 2009. Tr. 34, 120-25.[3] After her application was denied both initially and on reconsideration, Stoffel requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 72-76, 83-88. On November 10, 2010, ALJ James Yellowtail held a hearing at which Stoffel was represented and testified, as did a Vocational Expert ("VE"), C. Kay Wise. Tr. 29-69. On December 30, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Stoffel not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 10-18. On January 19, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Stoffel's request for review, making ALJ Yellowtail's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-4, 20 CFR § 416.1481.

BACKGROUND

Stoffel was born in 1962. Tr. 36. She obtained a GED and took a few college courses in 1997. Tr. 37, 141. She has no past relevant work, having never worked at substantial gainful activity levels. Tr. 57. Stoffel alleges that she began suffering from cervical spondylosis in approximately 1995. Tr. 34. She became unable to work on August 1, 2008, due to osteoporosis and severe arthritis of the spine and neck which causes numbness in her right arm and chronic pain in her neck and spine. Tr. 38, 136.

DISABILITY ANALYSIS

In construing an initial disability determination, the Commissioner engages in a sequential process encompassing between one and five steps. 20 CFR § 416.920; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).

At step one, the ALJ determines if the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 CFR § 416.920(a)(4)(i).

At step two, the ALJ determines if the claimant has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment" that meets the 12-month durational requirement. 20 CFR § 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Absent a severe impairment, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

At step three, the ALJ determines whether the severe impairment meets or equals an impairment "listed" in the regulations. 20 CFR § 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt P, App 1 (Listing of Impairments). If the impairment is determined to meet or equal a listed impairment, then the claimant is disabled.

If adjudication proceeds beyond step three, the ALJ must first evaluate medical and other relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of work-related activities the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 CFR § 416.920(e); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, available at 1996 WL 374184.

At step four, the ALJ uses the RFC to determine if the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 CFR § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, then at step five, the ALJ must determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142; Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1099 (9th Cir 1999); 20 CFR § 416.920(a)(4)(v).

The initial burden of establishing disability rests upon the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. If the process reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in the national economy within the claimant's RFC. Id. If the Commissioner ...


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