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King v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

September 18, 2014

CHERYL L. KING, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

JANICE M. STEWART, Magistrate Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff, Cheryl L. King ("King"), seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"), 42 USC §§ 401-433, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the SSA, 42 USC §§ 1381-1383f. This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 USC § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). For the reasons set forth below, that decision should be REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

King previously filed for DIB and SSI on June 30, 1999, alleging a disability onset date of May 20, 1999, based on carpal tunnel syndrome, a staph infection wound on her right thigh, and numb legs and feet. Tr. 84, 231.[1] On October 26, 2000, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Bert C. Hoffman, Jr., who issued a decision on January 27, 2001, finding King not disabled. Tr. 84-87.

King protectively filed again for DIB and SSI on June 10, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of January 18, 2001. Tr. 201-10. Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 88, 100, 112, 118. On June 21, 2011, a hearing was held before ALJ Sharon L. Madsen in Fresno, California, at which King and a Vocational Expert ("VE") testified. Tr. 27-80. The ALJ issued a decision on September 23, 2011, finding King not disabled. Tr. 8-21. The Appeals Council denied a request for review on June 25, 2013. Tr. 1-3. Therefore, the ALJ's decision is the Commissioner's final decision subject to review by this court. 20 CFR §§ 404.981, 416.1481, 422.210.

BACKGROUND

Born in 1961, King was 50 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 34. She did not complete high school, but has taken professional development courses, and has past relevant work experience as a store clerk and a collections clerk. Tr. 39, 238, 241-43. King alleges that she is unable to work due to the combined impairments of carpal tunnel syndrome, cervical disc degenerative disease, lumbar and right shoulder degenerative joint disease, chronic pain, obesity, depression, anxiety, and peripheral neuropathy. Tr. 13, 100, 290, 293.

DISABILITY ANALYSIS

Disability is the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity 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 12 months." 42 USC § 423(d)(1)(A). The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir 1999); 20 CFR §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

At step one, the ALJ determines if the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & (b), 416.920(a)(4)(i) & (b).

At step two, the ALJ determines if the claimant has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment" that meets the 12-month durational requirement. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & (c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii) & (c). Absent a severe impairment, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

At step three, the ALJ determines whether the severe impairment meets or equals an impairment "listed" in the regulations. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & (d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) & (d); 20 CFR Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (Listing of Impairments). If the impairment is determined to meet or equal a listed impairment, then the claimant is disabled.

If adjudication proceeds beyond step three, the ALJ must first evaluate medical and other relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of work-related activities the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e); Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996).

At step four, the ALJ uses the RFC to determine if the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) & (e). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, then at step five, the ALJ must determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 142 (1987); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099; 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & (g), 416.920(a)(4)(v) & (g).

The initial burden of establishing disability rests upon the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. If the process reaches step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in the national economy within the claimant's RFC. Id. If the Commissioner meets this burden, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & (g), 416.920(a)(4)(v) & (g), 416.960(c).

ALJ'S FINDINGS

The ALJ noted initially that King had presented "new and material evidence warranting a change" in the RFC assigned by ALJ Hoffman in January 27, 2001. Tr. 11. Because King met her burden to show a "changed circumstance, " the ALJ did not apply the presumption of continuing non-disability. Id. The ALJ also found that King met the insured status requirements through March 31, 2001, her date last insured. Tr. 13.

At step one of sequential analysis, the ALJ concluded that King has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 18, 2001. Tr. 13.

At step two, the ALJ determined that King has the severe impairments of cervical degenerative disc disease, lumbar degenerative joint disease, history of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, right shoulder degenerative joint disease, anxiety, depression, and peripheral neuropathy. Id.

At step three, the ALJ concluded that King does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals any of the listed impairments. Tr. 15. The ALJ found that King has the RFC to "lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, " can "sit, stand and walk for six hours in an 8-hour day, " is able to "occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs, " but can only "perform simple routine tasks." Tr. 16. However, she "cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, be around heights, " or forcefully grasp repetitively. Id.

Based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ determined at step four that King's RFC precluded her from returning to her past relevant work. Tr. 19. However, at step five, the ALJ found that considering King's age, education, and RFC, she was capable of performing light, unskilled work as a ticket taker, cashier 2, and mail clerk. Tr. 20.

Accordingly, the ALJ determined that King was not disabled at any time through the date of the decision. Tr. 21.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 USC § 405(g); Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir 2007). This court must weigh the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir 2007), citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir 1998). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 528 F.3d 1194, 1205 (9th Cir 2008), citing Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir 2007); see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir 2001). Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld if it is "supported by inferences ...


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