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Sours v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 25, 2014

BRANDON C. SOURS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

John E. Haapala, Jr., LAW OFFICE OF JOHN E. HAAPALA, JR., 401 E. 10th Avenue, Suite 240, Eugene, OR 97401. Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, and Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, District of Oregon, 1000 S.W. Third Avenue, Suite 600, Portland, OR 97201-2902; Carol A. Hoch, Special Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE GENERAL COUNSEL, Social Security Administration, 701 Fifth Avenue, Suite 2900 M/S 221A, Seattle, WA 98104-7075. Of Attorneys for Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.

Brandon C. Sours ("Plaintiff") seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act. Because the Commissioner's decision was based on the proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, the decision is AFFIRMED.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

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.

BACKGROUND

A. The Application

Plaintiff, Brandon Christopher Sours, was born on May 6, 1974 in Garibaldi, Oregon. Administrative Record ("AR") 26. After graduating high school in Garibaldi, Plaintiff joined the Navy. AR 335. Plaintiff served in the Navy from 1992 to 1994, and worked on a security team on board the USS George Washington. Plaintiff states that four months before to his discharge from the service he was partially crushed by a 350-pound skid that was used to carry bombs. AR 334. He adds that he left the military because of his poor health following that accident. In 2001, Plaintiff reported that he had held 23 jobs different jobs in the seven years since he left the Navy. Id. These jobs included work as a car salesman, independent contractor, telephone salesman, and regional manager of a business selling brushes. AR 178.

On November 7, 2000, Plaintiff filed a Title II application alleging disability as of September 22, 2000. AR 55. Plaintiff requested a hearing after the application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On October 29, 2004, after holding a hearing, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Timothy C. Terrill found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 64. Plaintiff appealed ALJ Terrill's decision to the Appeals Council and his appeal was denied. Plaintiff did not file any further appeals.

On August 13, 2010, Plaintiff filed a new Title II application, alleging his disability began on September 5, 2000.[1] AR 17, 65. Specifically, Plaintiff alleged disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), spondylolisthesis, depressive disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, gastroesophageal reflux disease, tinnitus, and arthritis of the knees. AR 20, 79. After his claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. ALJ Richard A. Say held a new hearing on March 21, 2012, and issued a decision on April 9, 2012, denying Plaintiff's application. AR 17-28. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 3, 2013, making ALJ Say's decision the final agency action. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

ALJ Say declined to reopen Plaintiff's 2004 adjudication. AR 18. Nor did the ALJ find changed circumstances as necessary to overcome the presumption of continued non-disability following an unfavorable final agency action. Id. Thus, the time under consideration for the current application is October 30, 2004 (the day after the previous adjudication) through December 31, 2006, which is Plaintiff's date last insured. Id.

B. The Sequential Analysis

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 past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, "taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience." Id .; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing "work which exists in the national economy"). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves ...


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