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Lyon v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

October 21, 2014

CATHERINE F. LYON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Catherine Lyon seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. 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 additional 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) 96-8p. 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. 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 1962 and was forty-six years old at the time of the alleged onset date. Plaintiff completed high school and training in banking, accounting, and bookkeeping. She has past working experience as a packing and shipping clerk, hand packager, data entry clerk, bank teller, and loan officer. Plaintiff protectively filed her Title II and Title XVI applications for benefits on June 8, 2010, alleging that she has been disabled since January 27, 2007. The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. At plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a video hearing on January 25, 2012. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, as well as an independent vocational expert (VE). At the hearing, plaintiff moved to amend her alleged onset date to September 11, 2009, and that motion was granted.

On March 9, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since September 11, 2009, her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 14.[1] At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffers from the following medically determinable severe impairments: degenerative changes of the sacroiliac joints, degenerative changes of the lumbar spine, arthritis of the wrists and distal interphalangeal joints bilaterally, arthritis of the knees, obesity, and a mood disorder. Tr. 14. After considering plaintiff's 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. 22. 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) and 416.967(b) except she cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she may occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she may frequently kneel, stoop, crawl, and balance; and she can occasionally, but not frequently or repetitively, perform fine fingering. Tr. 17. Based on plaintiffs age, RFC, education, work experience, and testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is able to perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as conveyor belt bakery worker, counter clerk, and laundry folder. Tr. 23. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 28.

On April 12, 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 argues that the final decision of the Acting Commissioner is not supported by substantial evidence and is not based on the application of proper legal standards for the following reasons: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiffs panic disorder with agoraphobia and related depression is not a medically determinable impairment; (2) the ALJ erred in discounting plaintiffs testimony; and ...


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