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Escobar-Gonzalez v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 12, 2014

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


MICHAEL J. McSHANE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Estella Escobar-Gonzalez brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The issues before this Court are: (1) whether the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in evaluating a September 1, 2005 treatment note; and (2) whether the ALJ erred under step four and five of the sequential evaluation. Because the ALJ erred by failing to expend reasonable efforts to identify the name and credentials of the author of the September 1, 2005 treatment note, and such an error is not necessarily harmless, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.


Plaintiff applied for DIB and supplemental security income payments (SSI) on March 29, 2010, alleging disability since August 1, 2003. Tr. 28, 243-44. Plaintiff's claim for DIB was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 96-97, 125. Plaintiff's claim for SSI was denied initially, but granted upon reconsideration on October 13, 2010, with an established onset date of July 1, 2010. Tr. 109-10, 140-41. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and appeared before the Honorable Paul G. Robeck on September 2, 2011. Tr. 28, 43-86, 167-68. ALJ Robeck denied plaintiff's claim for DIB by written decision dated October 6, 2011. Tr. 22, 28-38. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council, which was subsequently denied, tr. 1-3, thus rendering the ALJ's decision final. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.

Plaintiff, born on December 3, 1960, tr. 36, 48, completed the first grade in Mexico prior to immigrating, tr. 49, 252, 280, 351. Plaintiff also took several English classes at Portland Community College. Tr. 49. Plaintiff was forty-two at the time of alleged disability onset, and forty-five at her date last insured, December 31, 2005. See tr. 30, 48.[1] Plaintiff alleges disability due to: degenerative disk disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, obesity and asthma. Tr. 30.


The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).


The Social Security Administration utilizes a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If a claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC), age, education, and work experience. Id.

Plaintiff contends that: (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating a treatment note dated September 1, 2005; (2) the ALJ erred under step four because plaintiff did not work previously as a solderer; and (3) the ALJ erred under step five because plaintiff is disabled under the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids), 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2, § 201.00(h)(1).

I. Treatment Note

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in his consideration of a treatment note dated September 1, 2005, which was allegedly authored by Nicole Trajano, M.D. See Pl.'s Br. 5-8, ECF No. 12. In response, defendant argues that regardless of whether the treatment note was authored by Dr. Trajano, the limitations in the note were not supported in the medical record. Def.'s Br. 6, ECF No. 13 (quoting tr. 34). This Court looks to the treatment note.

That note, which is largely illegible, provides in part:

#2. Would like me to write a letter for disability.... Unable to do heavy lifting. Has pain if stands [greater than] 15 minutes or sits still [greater than] 15 min[utes]. No ...

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