United States District Court, D. Oregon
Lisa R.J. Porter, KP Law LLC, Portland, OR, Attorney for Plaintiff.
S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, and Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney's Office, District of Oregon, Portland, OR, Kathryn A. Miller, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, WA, Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.
Laura Ann Jones ("Jones") seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.
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." 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)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).
Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "[A] reviewing court 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) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id .; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.
Jones was born October 20, 1963 and is 50 years old. AR 110. Jones filed for DIB and SSI on April 23, 2010, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2009. AR 19. In his December 11, 2012 decision, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Jones met the insured status for DIB through December 31, 2011. AR 21. At step one, the ALJ found Jones had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after the alleged onset date of January 1, 2009. AR 21. At step two, the ALJ identified the following severe impairments: low back pain; irritable bowel syndrome; partial vision loss; chronic headaches; carpal tunnel syndrome; coronary artery disease; gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); depression; and anxiety. AR 21-22. At step three, the ALJ found Jones did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in the regulations. AR 22. At step four, the ALJ found that Jones was unable to perform her past relevant work but retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work with the following limitations:
The claimant is able to stand and walk for 5 hours out of an 8-hour workday in 30-minute increments.... lift 15 pounds.... [and] do occasional postural movement, but not climb ladders or crawl. The claimant is not able to work at heights and should have no exposure to hazards. The claimant should not operate heavy machinery. The claimant is able to have superficial contact with the general public and should work independently. The claimant should have a tolerant/patient supervisor who provides hands-on training for changes in the workplace. The claimant is able to frequently, but not repetitively, handle objects.
AR 28, 24. In arriving at this conclusion, the ALJ considered Jones's testimony, the lay testimony of Jones's boyfriend, Daniel Peterson, and the medical opinions of Drs. John Ruduff, Stephen Rubin, Michael Henderson, James Harris, Tanya Page, Martin Lahr, Sharon Eder, Joshua Boyd, Bill Hennings, and Luke Patrick. AR 25-28.
At step five, relying on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), the ALJ concluded that Jones was able to perform the job of small parts and products inspector and was, therefore, not disabled. AR 29-30. Jones filed an appeal with the Appeals Council but was denied review. AR 1. Consequently, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner that is subject to judicial review. This appeal followed. Jones argues that the ALJ erred in (a) finding she lacked full credibility; (b) discrediting lay testimony; and (c) formulating the RFC and presenting the hypothetical to the VE.
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.
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), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her ...