United States District Court, D. Oregon
JIM E. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
PAUL PAPAK, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff Jim E. Martin filed this action December 20, 2012, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). This court has jurisdiction over plaintiffs action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).
Martin argues that by erroneously rejecting medical evidence and erroneously rejecting Martin's testimony regarding the extent of his impairments, the Commissioner failed properly to assess his residual functional capacity after completing step three of the five-step sequential process for analyzing a Social Security claimant's entitlement to benefits, and for that reason failed to carry her burden at step five of the process. I have considered all of the parties' briefs and all of the evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed,
DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK
To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically deteiminabie 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 claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
At the first step, the Administrative Law Judge considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.
At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R, § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 CF.R. § 404.1520(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impairments are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c).
If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ deteimines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d). If the claimant's impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. F, app. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d).
If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related, physical and mental activities on a regular and continuing basis,  despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a); see also S.S.R. No. 96-8p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 5.
At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 CF.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f). In the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof is, for the first time, on the Commissioner.
At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566. If the Commissioner meets its burden to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is conclusively found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet its burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404, 1520(g).
A reviewing court must affirm an Administrative Law Judge's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Batson v. Comm'r for Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007), citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).
The court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id., citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See id, citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006); see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F, 3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of] more than one rational inteipretation." Magalkmes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), citing Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984).
Martin was born April 28, 1971. Tr. 31, 113, 125. He attended school through the eleventh grade, received a General Educational Development high school equivalency diploma in 1992, and has received no subsequent formal education or vocational training. Tr. 32-33, 136-143. According to the evidence of record, prior to his claimed disability onset date of March 1, 2009, Martin worked part-time as a fast-food cook in the summers of 1986 and 1987, worked full-time as a woodworker from January 1988 through May 2005, worked more than full time as a tow-truck driver from April 1998 through May 2005, and worked more than full time as a cabinet builder from May 2005 through March 2009. Tr. 58, 115-124, 128-133, 138, 144-156, 157-164. Following his claimed disability onset date, from April 2009 through February 2011 Martin worked as a gas-station attendant, at first full-time for a period of a few weeks and subsequently part-time. Tr. 33-34, 48-53, 115-124, 128-133, 138, 144-156, 157-164.
The earliest medical record appearing in the administrative record is a letter opinion signed by Martin's treating physician Paul G. Curtin, M.D., on July 6, 2009 (more than four months after Maitin's claimed disability onset date), stating, apparently for purposes of referral, that "Mr. Martin has advanced osteoarthiitis of the hips." Tr. 213, On July 23, 2009, apparently also for purposes of referral, Dr. Curtin further wrote that:
Mr. Martin has spent the last several years under my care for severe hip pain. If he were not of such a young age, he would have received a hip replacement by now, but orthopedics is delaying that until some number of years goes by. As a result of this he can no longer stand in one place and walk all day as he used to do as a cabinetmaker, and hence he has returned to school for further training.
Tr. 212. The administrative record contains no other medical records dating from prior to Martin's application for disability insurance benefits.
On September 15, 2009, Martin protectively filed an application for disability insurance benefits, claiming a disability onset date of March 1, 2009. Tr, 136-143, 113-114, 125-127. In connection with his application, Martin claimed to be disabled by arthritis of the hip and partial deafness. Tr, 136-143, 113-114, 125-127. Martin characterized the impairments caused by those conditions as follows:
Arthritis in my hips limits my ability to walk without pain. Sitting for more than an hour in most cases causes pain as well, bending and stooping are at times almost impossible. Medications help but do not take all the pain away. [T]he deafness limits my hearing and makes people have to repeat themselves for me.
* * *
Sitting is painful, [s]tanding is painful, walking is painful, [l]ifting the proper way without using my back is impossible because my hips cant move properly to do the lifting, unable to hear instructions at times unable to hear some people because the the [sic] tones of their voice. It is painful to walk, sit, bend, lift, even basic relaxation is uncomfortable,
Tr. 136-143. Martin reported that his daily activities included making breakfast for his children and getting them ready for school, perfoiming minor household chores when possible in consequence of his pain symptoms, collecting his children from school, feeding and caring for his family's pets, and sometimes preparing dinner for himself and for his family. Tr. 165-172, Martin reported that he was unable to bend or squat, that he sometimes needed his children's help to put on his socks and shoes, and that he was usually able to walk less than a quarter of a mile before needing to rest. Tr. 165-172. Martin described the pain caused by his arthritis of the hips as "aching to piercing" and as present when he walked, stood, sat, or bent. Tr. 173. Martin's wife, Lisa, provided a report consistent with Martin's own self-report of his symptoms and activities of daily living. Tr. 174-181. On October 19, 2009, Dr. Curtin's offices provided a "Patient Health Summary" indicating that Martin's significant diagnoses were of asthma, reflux esophagitis, and morbid obesity. Tr. 214-216.
On November 19, 2009, consultative examining physician DeWayde C. Perry, M.D., reported that Martin complained of bilateral hip arthritis, recording that:
The claimant's hip pain began gradually in 2005 in his right hip, but eventually the pain was felt in both hips. His pain is nearly constant, increased by walking more than thirty minutes, cold weather, cold water, squatting or bending. His pain is decreased by using prescription medications. He has had x-ray examinations performed of his hips, but he ...