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Doty v. Astrue

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 26, 2014

CHAUNCEY DOTY, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Chauncey Doty brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income payments (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The issue before this Court is whether the ALJ erred in formulating and applying plaintiff's RFC under step four and five of the sequential evaluation. Because the ALJ failed to incorporate recognized mental limitations into plaintiff's RFC and subsequent hypothetical questions posed to the vocational expert (VE), this matter is remanded under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Doty applied for DIB and SSI on May 18, 2009, alleging disability since January 1, 2008. Tr. 12, 146, 154. These claims were denied initially on July 28, 2010, and upon reconsideration on January 12, 2011. Tr. 12. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and appeared before the Honorable Richard A. Say on January 17, 2012. Tr. 12, 39-73. ALJ Say denied plaintiff's claims by written decision dated January 27, 2012. Tr. 12-31. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1-4. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

Plaintiff, born on April 18, 1965, earned his GED and worked as a welder for a month in 2010. Tr. 42-45. Plaintiff was forty-two at the time of alleged disability onset, tr. 29 & 42, and forty-six at the time of his hearing, tr. 42.[1] Plaintiff alleges disability due to diabetes mellitus, coronary artery disease status post stent placements, obesity, sleep apnea, depression and other limitations.[2] Tr. 14; Pl.'s Br. 6-7, ECF No. 13.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

DISCUSSION

The Social Security Administration utilizes a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in formulating and applying plaintiff's RFC under step four and five of the sequential evaluation. In particular, plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ failed to cite medical authority for RFC limitations imposed; (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiff's obesity; (3) the ALJ improperly rejected plaintiff's testimony; and (4) the ALJ failed to fully and fairly develop the record.

I. Medical Authority for RFC Limitations

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to cite adequate medical authority for the RFC limitations imposed and improperly applied SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996). Pl.'s Br. 11-14, ECF No. 13. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly determined plaintiff's mental and physical limitations. In response, the government directs this Court's attention to the ALJ's opinion, see, e.g., tr. 20-24, and argues that the ALJ "carefully combed through multiple medical records to formulate a [RFC]." Def.'s Br. 12, ECF No. 22.

Plaintiff's alleged mental limitations include: depression; social functioning deficits; concentration, attention and pace limitations; memory deficits; and "likely" low intellectual functioning. Pl.'s Br. 12-13, ECF No. 13. The ALJ made two sets of mental limitations findings.

First, pursuant to step three, [3] the ALJ found that plaintiff had "mild restriction" in activities of daily living, "mild difficulties" in social functioning, and "moderate difficulties" with regard to concentration, persistence and pace. Tr. 16-17. However, the ALJ noted, after explanation, that these limitations did not satisfy the paragraph B criteria pursuant to step three. Id .; see also 20 CFR § 404.1527(e)(2)(iii) ("[ALJs] may also ask for and consider opinions... on whether your impairment(s) equals the requirements of any impairment listed[.]" (emphasis added)).

Second, at step four, the ALJ found:

It was noted that the claimant very much defines himself by his work, but that he now had limited options for work given that his skill was in physical labor. On July 13, 2010, the claimant was alert and oriented times three, with appropriate mood and affect. The claimant had good eye contact and was awake and alert with improved mood on May 18, 2010. The claimant reported slightly anxious mood on exam on December 13, 2010. On January 6, 2012, the claimant was appropriately dressed and groomed with eye contact within normal limits, linear thought processes, blunted range in affect, no psychomotor agitation or retardation, and fair insight and judgment.

Tr. 23 (citations omitted); see also Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1232 (9th Cir. 1987) (finding that a physician not specialized in psychiatry may provide a medical opinion concerning a claimant's mental state). These findings, particularly when combined with plaintiff's daily activities, see, e.g., tr. 17 ("[plaintiff] goes to church and his mom's house, and gets along well with authority figures." (citing tr. 192, 200)), provide substantial evidence for the ALJ's mental ...


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