United States District Court, D. Oregon
TIM WILBORN, Las Vegas, NV, Attorney for Plaintiff.
S. AMANDA MARSHALL, United States Attorney, District of Oregon, ADRIAN L. BROWN, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, OR.
CHRISTOPHER J. BRACKETT, Social Security Administration, Office of the General Counsel, Seattle, WA, Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MALCOLM F. MARSH, District Judge.
Plaintiff Maria Yaws seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, and application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, I reverse the final decision of the Commissioner, and remand this action for further administrative proceedings.
PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 9, 2008, alleging disability beginning December 20, 2006 due to severe edema, morbid obesity, severe allergies, pulmonary problems, severe asthma, back pain, and sleep apena. Tr. 192. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). An ALJ held a hearing on September 23, 2010, at which plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expert, Gail Young, also appeared and testified. On January 11, 2011, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.
At the time of the hearing, plaintiff was 36 years old with a high school education and two years of college. Plaintiff has past relevant work as a front desk worker, pizza shift manager, mailroom attendant, and gas attendant/cashier.
THE ALJ'S DISABILITY ANALYSIS
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Ruckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Valentine v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin. , 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009); Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy. Andrews v. Shalala , 53 F.3d 1035, 1043 (9th Cir. 1995).
The ALJ concluded that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010. A claimant seeking DIB benefits under Title 11 must establish disability on or prior to the last date insured. 42 U.S.C. 416(1)(3); Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: morbid obesity; asthma; diabetes mellitus; major depressive disorder, single episode; generalized anxiety disorder; panic disorder with agoraphobia; and a history of drug use. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. The ALJ assessed plaintiff with a residual functional capacity to perform light work, except that plaintiff can stand and walk for two hours per day, cannot climb other than stairs, and other postural movements are limited to being performed no more than occasionally; plaintiff must avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants; and plaintiff is limited to unskilled work with little public contact.
At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that claimant can perform. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
ISSUES ON REVIEW
On appeal to this court, plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ improperly assessed plaintiff's credibility; (2) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate and include limitations described in the opinions of examining psychologist Daryl Birney, Ph.D., and plaintiff's treating mental health nurse practitioner Irene Holland, PMHNP; and (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated lay testimony from Glenda Coburn, plaintiff's friend.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Andrews , 53 F.3d at 1039. "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id .; Valentine , 574 F.3d at 690. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Martinez v. Heckler , 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Andrews , 53 F.3d at 1039-40. If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be affirmed; "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, " Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).
I. Plaintiff's Credibility
To determine whether a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must perform two stages of analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929. The first stage is a threshold test in which the claimant must produce objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Tommasetti v. Astrue , 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008); Smolen v. Chater , 80 F.3d 1273, 1282 (9th Cir. 1996). At the second stage of the credibility analysis, absent affirmative evidence of malingering, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting the claimant's testimony regarding ...