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Hughes v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 16, 2014

DOUGLAS HUGHES, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

James S. Coon, SWANSON, THOMAS, COON & NEWTON, Portland, OR, of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, District of Oregon, Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, OR; Leisa A. Wolf, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, WA, of Attorneys for Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.

Mr. Douglas Hughes, Jr. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

A. The Application

Mr. Hughes was 52 years old when he originally applied for disability insurance benefits in December of 2005, alleging an onset date of November 10, 2005. AR 22, 108, 125. He alleged disability due to open heart surgery that resulted from an aortic aneurism. AR 125. The Commissioner denied the claim initially and upon reconsiderations; thereafter, Mr. Hughes requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). AR 16. In August 2009, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision, finding Mr. Hughes disabled beginning on June 26, 2008 (Mr. Hughes' 55th birthday) under Medical Vocational Rule 202.06. The ALJ found that Mr. Hughes failed to meet his burden of proving disability before June 26, 2008. AR 14-24. Mr. Hughes appealed the ALJ's decision to the district court, where the Commissioner conceded that the ALJ had improperly rejected the testimony of lay witness Lorrayne Ellis. On May 2, 2012, Judge Papak remanded the case for further proceedings so that the ALJ could reconsider the written statement by Ms. Ellis. AR 722-38.

The ALJ held a remand hearing on December 12, 2012. AR 642-68. On January 11, 2013, the ALJ again issued a partially favorable decision finding Mr. Hughes disabled starting June 26, 2008, but also finding that Mr. Hughes had failed to prove disability for the time between November 10, 2005 and June 25, 2008. The Appeal's Counsel denied Mr. Hughes' request for review on February 23, 2011, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 3-5. Mr. Hughes now seeks judicial review of that decision.

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 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(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), 416.920(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, 416.910. 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), 416.920(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), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments 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), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"). 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four. assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), ...

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