United States District Court, D. Oregon
Alan Stuart Graf, Floyd, VA, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.
S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, and Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, District of Oregon, Portland, OR; Franco L. Becia, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, WA, Of Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.
Barbara Peterson seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.
Ms. Peterson was born on May 29, 1962. She protectively filed for disability benefits on June 16, 2010, alleging that her disability began on December 31, 2000. She claimed that her disability was caused by, among other things, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, obesity, low-back pain, pain in her left knee from a patellar subluxation, and reduced ability to lift or grasp things because of pain in her hands and wrists, possibly related to a right biceps tear or to arthritis. She was last insured on September 30, 2006.
Ms. Peterson's claim was initially denied on September 2, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on October 5, 2010. She then requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ, which took place on May 1, 2012. The ALJ also denied Ms. Peterson's claim, finding that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act through her date last insured. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision final and entitling Ms. Peterson to review in this Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is free of legal error and its findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance." Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039). Where the evidence is susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
In reviewing the Commissioner's decision, the Court "must consider the entire record as a whole." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks omitted). The Court may not affirm the Commissioner "simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence"; nor may the Court affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id. (quotation marks omitted); see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226. But as long as "the agency's path may reasonably be discerned, " the Court must affirm the agency's decision, even though the agency may have explained it with "less than ideal clarity." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted).
Ms. Peterson argues that the ALJ did not meet her burden of proof in the disability analysis. The Commissioner agrees. Accordingly, the only dispute is over the terms of remand: whether further administrative proceedings are necessary, or whether the Court should remand directly for payment of benefits. The Court holds that limited further administrative proceedings are indeed necessary.
A. The Five-Step Disability Analysis
A claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act if he or she is unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity 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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether an individual meets this standard, social security regulations establish a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 ...