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Sullivan v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

October 8, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ROBERT E. JONES, District Judge.

Plaintiff Suzanne Bernadette Sullivan appeals the Commissioner's decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). I REVERSE and REMAND for further administrative proceedings.


Sullivan alleged she has been disabled since January 1, 2003 due to severe degenerative disc disease, lumbar syndrome, and morbid obesity. Admin. R. 15. She alleged intense pain that initially surfaced in January 2003 and progressed significantly from December 2005 until December 2006. Her medical history consists of four back fusions, collapsing discs, and sciatic pain radiating to her legs and feet. Admin. R. 15. She said that by December 2005 she became essentially housebound. She alleged these impairments prevented her from performing any work.

The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applied the five-step test outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 to determine whether Sullivan was disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. The ALJ correctly determined that Sullivan satisfied the insured status requirements for a claim under Title II through December 31, 2006. Admin. R. 12. She must establish that she was disabled on or before that date to prevail on her claim. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A); Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1998).

The ALJ found that her morbid obesity, lumbar syndrome, status post discectomy and fusion limited her ability to work. The ALJ further held that Sullivan's impairments did not meet or equal any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("Listing of Impairments"). Admin R. 14. He determined that Sullivan retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work. Admin. R. 15. Lastly, the ALJ found she could perform her past relevant work as a circulation manager for a newspaper because this position did not require work that her RFC precluded. Admin. R. 16. The ALJ found Sullivan not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Admin. R. 17.


The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if he applied the proper legal standards and if substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports the findings of fact. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Under this standard, the court will uphold the Commissioner's factual findings if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record even if evidence exists to support another rational interpretation. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193; Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039-40 (9th Cir. 1995).


I. Claims of Error

Sullivan contends the ALJ erroneously evaluated her subjective statements, the findings and opinions of medical sources, and the statements of a lay witness. She argues the ALJ improperly concluded that she did not meet the criteria for any listed impairment at step three and failed to assess accurately her RFC.

II. Medical Evidence

Sullivan contends the ALJ improperly ignored relevant medical evidence. An ALJ can properly discount the opinion of a treating physician with a clear and convincing explanation supported by substantial evidence. Lester v. Chafer, 81 F.3d 821, 830-31 (9th Cir. 1996); Vincent v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 1393, 1395 (9th Cir. 1984).

Sullivan argues the ALJ committed reversible error by rejecting the opinions of Dr. Thomas P. Henry and his nurse practitioner, Victoria LaPorte, who said Sullivan could not sit on a hard or padded bench for more than an hour at a time. Admin. R. 189. Next, Sullivan argues the ALJ erred in rejecting the results of Dr. Michael Neuman's 2009 bone scan showing evidence of severe degenerative disc disease, especially at L3-4, with subchondral sclerosis. Admin. R. 333. She additionally argues that the ALJ erred in rejecting other clinical findings that support her lumbar impairment including: positive straight-leg tests (Admin. R. 181, 184, 189, 327), abnormal gait (walking with two canes) (Admin. R. 181-184, 189, 302), reduced range of motion (Admin. R. 191, 182, 184, 189, 302, 319, 327), ...

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