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Fittje v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

September 4, 2014

TERRY J. FITTJE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Terry J. Fittje seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). This court has jurisdiction to review the Acting Commissioner's decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). After reviewing the record, this court concludes that the Acting Commissioner's decision must be reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

STANDARDS

A claimant is considered "disabled" under the Social Security Act if: (1) he or she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) "by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months, " and (2) the impairment is "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Hill v. Astrue, 688 F.3d 1144, 1149-50 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). In steps one through four, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant (1) has not engaged in SGA since his or her alleged disability onset date; (2) suffers from severe physical or mental impairments; (3) has severe impairments that meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments that automatically qualify as disabilities under the Social Security Act; and (4) has a residual functional capacity (RFC) that prevents the claimant from performing his or her past relevant work. Id. An RFC is the most an individual can do in a work setting despite the total limiting effects of all his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1), and Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-Sp. The claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps to establish his or her disability.

At the fifth step, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in a significant number in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. Gomez v. Chafer, 74 F.3d 967, 970 (9th Cir. 1996). If the Commissioner cannot meet this burden, the claimant is considered disabled for purposes of awarding benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f)(1), 416.920(a). On the other hand, if the Commissioner can meet its burden, the claimant is deemed to be not disabled for purposes of determining benefits eligibility. Id.

The Commissioner's decision must be affirmed if it is based on the proper legal standards and its findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chafer, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).

When reviewing the decision, the court must weigh all of the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. The Commissioner, not the reviewing Court, must resolve conflicts in the evidence, and the Commissioner's decision must be upheld in instances where the evidence supports either outcome. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720-21 (9th Cir. 1998). If, however, the Commissioner did not apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and making the decision, the decision must be set aside. Id. at 720.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff was born in 1961 and is classified as a "younger person" at the time of the alleged onset date. Plaintiff completed her General Education Development (GED) in 1990 and has past work experience as a cashier, certified nurse assistant, office assistant, order cook and line worker at a food processing plant. Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on December 4, 2008, alleging that she has been disabled since December 1, 2007. The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. At plaintiffs request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on August 30, 2011. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as an independent vocational expert (VE).

On September 23, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. Before beginning the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 31, 2010; therefore, plaintiff must have been disabled on or before that date to qualify for DIB. Tr. 14.[1] At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since December 1, 2007, her alleged onset date. Tr. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable severe impairments: coronary artery disease, degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease, diabetes mellitus (Type II), morbid obesity, asthma, and carpal tunnel syndrome (status post surgery). Tr. 14. The ALJ found that plaintiff does not have any severe mental impairments. Tr. 15. After considering plaintiffs severe and non-severe impairments, the ALJ determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 16. After considering the entire record, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except: she can lift and carry ten pounds frequently and twenty pounds occasionally; stand arid walk a total of two hours in an eight-hour day; sit two hours at a time up to eight hours total in an eight-hour day; occasionally climb stairs and ramps; cannot climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; can only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; avoid moderate exposure to dust, fumes, gases, and other respiratory irritants; avoid exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, and other hazards; and cannot perform work requiring the use of upper extremities for repetitive tasks. Tr. 17. Based on plaintiff's RFC and the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as an office helper. Tr. 20. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled and step five of the sequential analysis was not reached. Tr. 20.

On February 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action seeking judicial review.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ committed one error in conducting the sequential analysis. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated psychological evidence in affording little weight to the opinions of examining psychologists Kay Stradinger, Psy.D., and John ...


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