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Jones v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

December 11, 2013

JACKY J. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Tim D. Wilborn, Wilborn Law Office, P.C., Las Vegas, NV, Attorney for plaintiff, S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, Adrian L. Brown, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, Oregon.

>Kathy Reif, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel Social Security Administration, Seattle, Washington, Attorneys for defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANN AIKEN, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiff Jacky J. Jones 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 supplementary security income ("SSI") under the Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI on February 18, 2005. Tr. 58-62, 63-65. Both applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id . After a hearing which took place on November 8, 2007, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which was declined. Tr. 3-6. Plaintiff then filed a civil action, which upon stipulation of the parties, resulted in an order by this Court remanding the matter for further proceedings. Tr. 861 See Civil No. 6:10-cv-00661-AA. After a second hearing on December 14, 2011, the ALJ issued another decision again finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 832-48. The Appeals Council again declined plaintiff's request for review, making the 2011 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed his second complaint, which is now before the Court.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

Born December 29, 1951, plaintiff was 45 years old on the alleged onset date of disability, June 3, 1997. He was 51 years old on his date last insured for Title II benefits, December 31, 2002. Plaintiff earned his GED and was employed as a construction worker from 1974 until his alleged onset date. Tr. 91, 95. On June 3, 1997, plaintiff injured his neck and back in a workplace accident resulting in a disability due to a combination of impairments including degenerative disc disease, limited mobility, numbness, back and neck pain, and headaches. Tr. 90.

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) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

THE ALJ's FINDINGS

At step one of the five step sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the adjudication period between June 3, 1997, and his date last insured of December 31, 2002. Tr. 837. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments through the date last insured: strain of the cervical spine and mild degenerative disc disease at C5-6. Tr. 838. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the requirements of a listed impairment. Id.

Because he did not establish disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate whether plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work. The ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform

generally light work... subject to limitations and modifications... includ[ing] lifting and carrying 5 to 15 pounds frequently, and 25 to 40 pounds occasionally, but overhead lifting and carrying is limited to 10 pounds, and pushing and pulling with the upper extremities is limited to 25 pounds occasionally and 15 pounds frequently. Sitting is limited to 30 minutes at a time and a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour day. Standing and walking are each limited to one hour at a time and a total each of 4 hours in an 8-hour day. Climbing stairs and ramps, overhead reaching, and grasping can be done ...

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