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Eggleston v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

October 28, 2014

RANDY A. EGGLESTON, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

ANCER L. HAGGERTY, District Judge.

Plaintiff Randy A. Eggleston seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying his 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 AFFIRMED.

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)(l), 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. Chafer, 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 1970 and was thirty-six years old at the time of his alleged disability onset date. He protectively filed his applications for Title II and Title XVI disability benefits on April 27, 2009, alleging an onset date of August 2, 2006. Plaintiff's alleged disability was based on a number of physical and mental impairments, including: history of aortic tear, chest wall pain stemming from surgery, hypertension, degenerative disc disease, angina, gout, asthma, depression, and a history of substance abuse. Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through March 13, 2013. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) conducted a video hearing on May 7, 2012. The ALJ heard testimony from plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and an impartial vocational expert (VE). On June 29, 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 August 2, 2006. Tr. 21, Finding 2.[1] At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: a history of an aortic tear, a history of thoracotomy, hypertension, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, a history of angina, a history of gout, a history of left upper extremity pain, a history of asthma, depression, and a history of polysubstance abuse. Tr. 21, Finding 3. At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs severe impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 26, Finding 4. At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the RFC to lift and carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk six hours and sit six hours in an eight hour workday; occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally handle with the non-dominant left upper extremity; and that he must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. Tr. 27, Finding 5.

Based on plaintiffs RFC and testimony from the VE, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. Tr. 34, 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 an usher, counter clerk, or survey worker. Tr. 35, 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 argues that the ALJ e!Ted in a number of ways. First, plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions and conclusions of plaintiffs treating physician and that the ALJ improperly substituted his own opinion for that of plaintiffs treating and examining medical sources on the record. Second, plaintiff contends that the ALJ rejected part of his testimony regarding the intensity of his pain and other symptom testimony for less than clear and convincing reasons. Third, plaintiff asserts that, because of these failures, the ALJ improperly relied on the VE testimony in determining ...


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