United States District Court, D. Oregon
Linda S. Ziskin, Ziskin Law Office, Las Vegas, NV, Richard A. Sly, Portland, OR. Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.
S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, and Adrian L. Brown, Assistant United States Attorney, U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Oregon, Portland, Oregon, David J. Burnett and Erin F. Highland, Special Assistant United States Attorneys, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, Washington. Of Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.
Richard Peter Stavrakis seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental social security income. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). "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." Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).
If "the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, " the Court must uphold the Commissioner's conclusion. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005). A reviewing court, however, "must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). The court may review "only the reasons provided by the" Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") "in the disability determination and may not affirm the ALJ on a ground upon which [the ALJ] did not rely." Id .; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1225.
A. The Application
Mr. Stavrakis was born on March 2, 1965, and is 49 years old. AR 32. He protectively filed an application for supplemental social security income on October 28, 2009, alleging disability beginning July 1, 1991. AR 24. He alleges disability due to cognitive impairment. AR 136, 187. The claim was denied initially on March 31, 2010, and upon reconsideration on July 16, 2010; thereafter, Mr. Stavrakis filed a written request for a hearing before an ALJ. AR 24. After an administrative hearing held on July 6, 2011, the ALJ ruled that Mr. Stavrakis is not disabled. AR 24, 33. The Appeals Council denied Mr. Stavrakis's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Mr. Stavrakis now seeks judicial review of that decision, requesting that the Court find him disabled or, alternatively, remand this case for further proceedings. Pl.'s Br., ECF 25 at 13.
B. The Sequential Analysis
A claimant is disabled if he or she is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which... has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). "Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act." Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:
1. Is the claimant performing "substantial gainful activity?" 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1510. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Unless expected to result in death, an impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). This impairment must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment "meet or equal" one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, appx. 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis proceeds beyond step three. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regulAR and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. Id. After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her "past relevant work" with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her ...