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Romero v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

September 25, 2014

GABRIELA ROMERO, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Gabriela Romero seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and 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 [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] 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 impahments 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 impahments. 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. Chater, 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. Chafer, 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.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in 1988 and was twenty-one years old at the time of her alleged disability onset date. She protectively filed her applications for Title II and Title XVI disability benefits on March 15, 2010, alleging an onset date of November 30, 2009. Plaintiffs alleged disability was based on a number of mental impairments, including: Bipolar Type I, anxiety, agoraphobia, depression and insomnia. Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2011. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a hearing on January 10, 2012. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, plaintiff's mother, and an impartial vocational expert (VE). On January 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled as defined under the Social Security Act.

At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since November 30, 2009. Tr. 26, Finding 2.[1] At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the severe impairment of bipolar disorder. Tr. 26, Finding 3. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 28, Finding 4. At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the RFC to perform a range of work at all exertional levels but with the following limitations: she should not work around hazards such as working at unprotected heights or around machinery with exposed moving pats; she should not be given complex tasks; and she should have less than occasional interaction with her coworkers and should have no contact with the general public in her work tasks. Tr. 29, Finding 5.

Based on plaintiff's RFC and testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. Tr. 32, Finding 6. At step five, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy including work as a industrial cleaner, hotel cleaner, or small products assembler. Tr. 32-33, Finding 10. Therefore, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for administrative review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. Plaintiff subsequently initiated this action seeking judicial review.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ rejected part of her testimony regarding the intensity of her symptoms and the side-effects of her medications, as well as their effect on her ability to work, for less than clear and convincing reasons. Second, plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly rejected the lay witness testimony of plaintiffs mother. Third, plaintiff asserts that, because of these failures, the ALJ improperly relied on the VE testimony in determining that plaintiff could perform ...


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