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Epperson-Nordland v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

October 22, 2013

STACY EPPERSON-NORDLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Merrill Schneider, Schneider Kerr Law Offices, Portland, Oregon, Attorney for plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, Adrian L. Brown, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, Oregon.

John C. LaMont, Office of General Counsel - Region X, Social Security Administration, Seattle, Washington,

Franco L. Becia, Assistant Regional Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, Washington, Attorneys for defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANN AIKEN, Chief Judge.

Plaintiff Stacy Epperson-Nordland brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act") to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's applications for Title II disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Title XVI supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case has a long and complicated procedural history. Plaintiff filed her first applications for DIB and SSI on June 9, 1995. Tr. 16. Both applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id . After a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a decision, on March 24, 1999, finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id . The Appeals Council accepted review and remanded the case for further proceedings. Id . On November 7, 2005, after a second administrative hearing, the ALJ issued another unfavorable decision. Id . On June 27, 2006, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's 2005 decision. Id . Plaintiff did not file any further appeals thereafter. Id.

On July 31, 2007, plaintiff filed new DIB and SSI claims. Tr. 16, 123-32. After the applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an ALJ. Tr. 82-86, 91-95. On August 30, 2010, a third ALJ hearing was held, wherein plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). Tr. 32-56. On September 19, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 16-27. After the Appeals Council declined review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-5.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Born on December 21, 1964, plaintiff was 29 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 45 years old at the time of the 2010 hearing. Tr. 26, 39, 123, 130. Plaintiff completed the eleventh grade and later obtained her GED; she also attended two years of college. Tr. 39, 149. She previously worked as a bookkeeper. Tr. 145. Plaintiff alleges disability as of June 15, 1994 due to "arthritis, fibromyalgia, allergies, insomnia, " and depression, which are accompanied by pain, fatigue, "poor focus, [and] poor concentration." Tr. 40-41, 123, 130, 144.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen , 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)) The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler , 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. See Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler , 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected.. to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, she is not disabled.

At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141.

At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national and local economy. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & ...


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