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Norwood v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 15, 2015

DARLA NORWOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

PATRICIA SULLIVAN, Magistrate Judge.

Darla Norwood ("plaintiff") seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Title II disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). All parties have consented to a Magistrate Judge in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In July 2010[1] plaintiff filed a Title II application for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of September 15, 2004, with a date last insured of December 31, 2007. Tr. 110, 113. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 46-51, 54-61, 73-74. On August 14, 2012, an administrative hearing was held at which plaintiff testified and was represented by counsel; a vocational expert ("VE") also testified. Tr. 32-45. On September 24, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 18-25. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 15.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Born on September 28, 1957, plaintiff was 46 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 50 years old on the date last insured. Tr. 46, 110. Plaintiff graduated from high school. Tr. 23, 123. She worked previously as a cashier, office clerk, and bank teller. Tr. 23, 123. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning September 15, 2004, due to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, trigger finger, asthma, anxiety/depression, bronchitis, degenerative joint disease, pneumonia, allergic rhinitis, and acute sinusitis. Tr. 46, 54, 122.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, 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 last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502, 416.920. First, the Commissioner considers whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

At step two, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have such an impairment, she is not disabled.

At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant can perform her past work, she is not disabled; if a claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, left hand, and bilateral shoulders; trigger finger on the left; and asthma. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 20-21.

Because plaintiff did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except:

(1) the claimant is limited to occasional reaching above shoulder height; (2) the claimant is limited to sitting for 6 hours total in an 8 hour working day, and standing for 2 hours at a time and up to 4 hours total in an 8-hour working day; (3) the claimant is limited to walking for up to 4 hours total in an 8-hour working day; (4) the claimant is limited to lifting and carrying 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; and (5) the claimant is limited to occasional fine manipulation and forceful grip with the non-dominant upper extremity.

Tr. 21.

At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. Tr. 23. At step five, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs existing in the national and local economy despite her impairments, such as cashier, bottling line attendant, and packing line worker. Tr. 24. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 24-25.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) finding plaintiff not fully credible; (2) rejecting the lay opinion of plaintiff's husband, Richard Norwood; and (3) ...


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