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Maloney v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

August 5, 2014

SEAN T. MALONEY, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN V. ACOSTA, Magistrate Judge.


Plaintiff Sean T. Maloney ("Maioney") filed this action under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act") as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") who denied him: 1) social security disability and disability insurance benefits, as well as 2) supplemental security income. For the reasons set forth below, the court remands the decision of the Commissioner for further consideration.

Procedural Background

On September 28, 2009, Maloney filed the two aforementioned separate applications for benefits. In both, Maloney alleged an onset date of January 3, 2007, on the basis of bipolar disorder. The application was denied initially, on reconsideration, and by Administrative Law Judge Laura Valente ("ALJ"), after a hearing. The Appeals Council received additional evidence in the form of a brief from Maloney's attorney, a psychological report from Gerald Fleisher, Ph.D., and progress notes from J. Wayne Mathews, M.D., but denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Factual Background

Maloney is thirty-seven years old and earned a college degree in business. His past relevant work experience includes fast food worker, dishwasher, cashier, and retail sales clerk. Maloney has not been involved in a successful work attempt since January 3, 2007. Maloney last met the insured status requirements entitling him to benefits on March 31, 2011.

Standard of Review

The Social Security Act provides for payment of disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). The burden of proof to establish a disability rests upon the claimant. Gomez v. Chafer, 74 F.3d 967, 970 (9th Cir. 1996), cert, denied, 519 U.S. 881 (1996). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to cause death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if there are physical or mental impairments of such severity that the individual is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering his or her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520; Lester v. Chater, 81 F.3d 821, 828 n.5 (9th Cir. 1995). First, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If the claimant is engaged in such activity, benefits are denied. Otherwise, the Commissioner proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. A severe impairment is one "which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, benefits are denied.

If the impairment is severe, the Commissioner proceeds to the third step to determine whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the Commissioner proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past-relevant work. If the claimant is able to perform work which he or she has performed in the past, a finding of "not disabled" is made and benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e).

If the claimant is unable to do work performed in the past, the Commissioner proceeds to the fifth and final step to determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy in light of his or her age, education, and work experience. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show what gainful work activities are within the claimant's capabilities. Distasio v. Shalala, 47 F.3d 348, 349 (9th Cir. 1995). The claimant is entitled to benefits only if he or she is not able to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006); Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). It is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Tylitzki v. Shalala, 999 F.2d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1993).

The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Thus, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld, even where the evidence can support either affirming or reversing the ALJ's conclusion. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir, 1995). In determining a claimant's residual functioning capacity, an ALJ must consider all relevant evidence in the record, including, inter alia, medical records, lay evidence, and "the effects of symptoms, including pain, that are reasonably attributed to a medically determinable impairment." Robbins, 466 F.3dat 883 (citing Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1 545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3); Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996)). However, the reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion, and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007).

Summary of the ALJ's Decision

At step one, the ALJ found that Maloney had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 3, 2007. (Admin. R. at 15.) At step two, the ALJ found Maloney to have severe impairments of mood disorder and substance addiction disorder. (Admin. R. at 15.) She further found the record established the impairments were medically determinable and that they caused more than minimal functional limitations in the performance of basic work activities. (Admin. R. at 15.) At step three, the ALJ found these impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. (Admin. R. at 16.) Next, [1] the ALJ made a residual functional capacity ("RFC") determination, considering Maloney to be capable of performing a full range of work at all exertional levels, but also outlining non-exertional limitations on that capability. (Admin. R. at 17.) The Social Security Administration defines RFC as, "[A]n administrative assessment of the extent to which an individual's medically determinable impairment(s), including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and mental activities." SSR 96-8p, at *5. The non-exertional limitations identified by the ALJ were:

... the claimant has sufficient concentration to understand, remember, and carry-out simple routine tasks of the kind found in unskilled work with SVPs up to 2; has sufficient persistence and pace work superficially with general public (superficial is defined as not having to respond to the demands/requests of the public but can refer those demands/requests to others to respond while working in the same room or vicinity of the general public; greetings are superficial); has sufficient persistence and pace to work in coordination with a small group of coworkers (1 to 3 people); and has sufficient persistence and pace to make simple workplace decisions and to handle a few workplace changes.

(Admin. R. at 17.) Between the third and fourth steps, the ALJ found:

After careful consideration of the evidence, the undersigned finds that the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not credible for the reasons discussed below,

(Admin. R. at 19.)

The ALJ then discussed five reasons for finding Maloney not credible. First, the ALJ determined that Maloney's mental symptoms and limitations were not substantiated by the medical record to the degree Maloney had alleged. (Admin. R. at 19.) Here, the ALJ pointed out those occasions Maloney's medical records confirmed he is a chronic user of methamphetamine, including Maloney's admissions to substance use and abuse; Maloney testing positive for druguse; healthcare provider suspicion related to Maloney's substance use and abuse; and the likelihood of connections between Maloney's symptoms and his substance use and abuse. (Admin. R. at 19-23.) The ALJ also attempted to identify times during which Maloney's condition was stable, and to distinguish them from the times he was using drugs. (Admin. R. at 19-23.)

Second, the ALJ determined the record evidenced that Maloney had engaged in activities showing a greater degree of mental functioning than he had alleged. (Admin. R. at 23.) As examples, the ALJ cited evidence of Maloney's social abilities, and his ability to function ...

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