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Cothrell v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

March 5, 2014

ERIC COTHRELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Eric Cothrell seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). This court has jurisdiction to review the Acting Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After reviewing the record, this court concludes that the Acting Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

STANDARDS

A claimant is considered "disable& under the Social Security Act if: (1) he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) "by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, " and (2) the impairment is "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Hill v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 1144, 1149-50 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3); Tackett Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). In steps one through four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant (1) has not engaged in SGA since his or her alleged disability onset date; (2) suffers from severe physical or mental impairments; (3) has severe impairments that meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments that automatically qualify as disabilities under the Social Security Act; and (4) has a residual functional capacity (RFC) that prevents the claimant from performing his or her past relevant work. Id. An RFC is the most an individual can do in a work setting despite the total limiting effects of all his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1), and Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps to establish his or her disability.

At the fifth step, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in a significant number in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Gomez v. Chafer, 74 F.3d 967, 970 (9th Cir. 1996). If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, the claimant is considered disabled for purposes of awarding benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)(1), 416.920(a). On the other hand, if the Commissioner can meet its burden, the claimant is deemed to be not disabled for purposes of determining benefits eligibility. Id.

The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed if it is based on the proper legal standards and its findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chafer, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).

When reviewing the decision, the court must weigh all of the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. The Commissioner, not the reviewing court, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and the Commissioner's decision must be upheld in instances where the evidence supports either outcome. Reddick v. Chafer, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1998). If, however, the Commissioner did not apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and making the decision, the decision must be set aside. Id. at 720.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff was born in 1963. He graduated high school and earned an Associate's Degree as a machinist. He has previous work experience as a machine operator for his father's company and as an escort vehicle driver. On December 17, 2009, plaintiff protectively filed applications for SSI and DIB. In both applications, plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2003. His date last insured was December 31, 2007. His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration.

At plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on May 5, 2011. At the hearing, plaintiff amended his alleged disability onset date to October 28, 2005. Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did plaintiff's mother and sister. Also appearing and testifying were an independent medical expert and an independent vocational expert (VE).

On September 14, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff disabled as of December 17, 2009, but not disabled prior to this date. Tr. 32-33.[1] At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the amended alleged onset date. Tr. 25, Finding 2. At step two, the ALJ found that since the amended alleged onset date, plaintiff has suffered from the following medically determinable severe impairments: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, a personality disorder, substance induced psychosis and polysubstance abuse. Tr. 25, Finding 3. After considering plaintiff's severe and non-severe impairments, the ALJ determined that, prior to December 17, 2009, plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 25, Finding 4. For the period in question prior to December 17, 2009, the All found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: plaintiff was limited to simple, entry-level work with only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers. Tr. 26. The All found that, since the amended alleged onset date, plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 29, Finding 6. Prior to December 17, 2009, considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the All found that plaintiff could have performed jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy, such as an assembler and janitor. Tr. 29, Finding 10. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that, prior to December 17, 2009, plaintiff was not disabled. However, the All found that, beginning on December 17, 2009, the severity of plaintiff's impairments medically equaled the criteria of sections 12.04, 12.06 and 12.08 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 30. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for administrative review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action seeking judicial review.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that the AU erred in failing to find that plaintiff was disabled during the relevant period before December 17, 2009. Plaintiff contends that this court must reverse and remand the Acting Commissioner's final ...


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