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Butler v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 29, 2014

CYNTHIA BUTLER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Robyn M. Rebers Wilsonville, OR, Attorney for Plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, District of Oregon, Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, Portland, OR, Lars J. Nelson, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel Social Security Administration, Seattle, WA, Attorneys for Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

GARR M. KING, District Judge.

Plaintiff Cynthia Butler brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner denying plaintiff's application for supplemental security income benefits ("SSI"). I affirm the decision of the Commissioner.

BACKGROUND

Butler protectively filed an application for SSI on July 21, 2009, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2000. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a timely request for a hearing, Butler, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on January 13, 2012. On March 22, 2012, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing at which a medical expert, Sally Clayton, M.D., testified.

On April 3, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Butler was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and therefore not entitled to benefits. This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council declined to review the decision of the ALJ on June 17, 2013.

DISABILITY ANALYSIS

The Social Security Act (the "Act") provides for payment of disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). In addition, under the Act, supplemental security income benefits may be available to individuals who are age 65 or over, blind, or disabled, but who do not have insured status under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a).

The claimant must demonstrate an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to cause death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if his physical or mental impairments are 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. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for either DIB or SSI due to disability. The evaluation is carried out by the ALJ. The claimant has the burden of proof on the first four steps. Parra v. Astrue , 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). If the claimant is engaged in such activity, disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. A severe impairment is one "which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied.

If the impairment is severe, the ALJ proceeds to the third step to determine whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work which the claimant performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform work she performed in the past, a finding of "not disabled" is made and disability benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f).

If the claimant is unable to perform work performed in the past, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step to determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy in light of his age, education, and work experience. The burden shifts to the Commissioner to show what gainful work activities are within the claimant's capabilities. Parra , 481 F.3d at 746. The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he is not able to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court must affirm a denial of benefits if the denial is supported by substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards. Molina v. Astrue , 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion" and is more than a "mere scintilla" of the evidence but less than a preponderance. Id . (internal quotation omitted). The court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they "are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record[, ]" even if the evidence is susceptible to multiple rational interpretations. Id.

THE ALJ'S DECISION

The ALJ identified the following conditions as Butler's severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with a history of cervical fusions; hepatitis C; fibromyalgia; left shoulder strain; depression; anxiety; borderline intellectual functioning; polysubstance abuse, in remission; and left hip degenerative joint disease. The ALJ found that these impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Given these impairments, the ALJ found Butler can perform light work, with the exception of climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She should avoid heights, hazards and heavy equipment. She can only occasionally perform overhead lifting with her left arm. Finally, she is limited to simple, routine, tasks with only occasional public contact. Based on this residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ concluded Butler is unable to perform her past work, but can perform other work in the national economy, including flagger, airplane cleaner, and electronics worker.

FACTS

Butler was 37 years old at the time of her alleged onset date of disability. She did not attend high school. Butler was convicted of selling methamphetamine in 2009. As part of her parole obligations, she was working toward obtaining her GED at the time of the hearing. She completed a rehabilitation program after her conviction, and reported that she has been clean and sober since June 5, 2009. She tested positive for opioids in June 2010 and methamphetamines and opioids in February 2011.

Butler has worked short stints as a housekeeper, a grocery store clerk, and caregiver for her mother. She described suffering from lifelong depression and anxiety. Butler underwent a cervical fusion with discectomy in 2000 and a second cervical fusion in 2007, and was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in November 2009. In 2010, she was diagnosed with an ...


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