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Winn v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 21, 2015

ANGELICA C. WINN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Drew L. Johnson, DREW L. JOHNSON, P.C., Eugene, OR, Kathryn Tassinari, HARDER, WELLS, BARON & MANNING, P.C., Eugene, OR, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, United States Attorney, District of Oregon, Ronald K. Silver, Assistant United States Attorney, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, DISTRICT OF OREGON, Portland, OR, Erin F. Highland, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Office of the General Counsel, Seattle, WA, Attorneys for Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

MARCO A. HERNNDEZ, District Judge.

Plaintiff Angelica Winn brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision 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) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for an award of benefits.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff applied for DIB on November 4, 2010, alleging an onset date of September 5, 2009. Tr. 12. Her application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 101-107. On September 25, 2012, Plaintiff appeared, with counsel, for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 36-78. On December 27, 2012, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 12-23. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-4.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleges disability based on dizziness, blackouts (also referred to as "syncope episodes"), diabetes, depression, short-term memory loss, sleep apnea, and emotional fears of blackouts happening in public. Tr. 184. Plaintiff testified that the main thing keeping her from working is her blackouts. Tr. 45. Sometimes she knows a blackout is coming on but most of the time she does not and so she "hit[s] the floor." Tr. 45. She also testified that she has some blackouts where she wakes up in a different place and is not sure how she got there. Tr. 52. Plaintiff testified that she gets dizzy eight to ten times a day and has to lie down and rest three times a day, on average. Tr. 63-64. Plaintiff believes that her syncope episodes and spells of dizziness are related to injuries she incurred in a serious motorcycle accident. Tr. 252, 276.

Plaintiff was forty-four years old at the time of the administrative hearing. Tr. 22. She graduated from high school. Tr. 22. She has past work experience as a mixer-blender, cashier-checker, and supervisor at a food business. Tr. 22. Because the parties are familiar with the medical and other evidence in the record, the Court refers to any additional relevant facts in the discussion section below.

SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

A claimant is disabled if unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. See e.g., Valentine v. Comm'r , 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137 at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

In step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment meets or equals "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 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141.

In step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity to perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. In step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets his burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

THE ALJ'S DECISION

At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 14. Next, at steps two and three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has severe impairments of episodic syncope of uncertain etiology but possibly resulting from diabetes and/or a sleep disorder, Type II diabetes mellitus, and sleep disorder with restless leg syndrome, but that the impairments did not meet or equal, either singly or in combination, a listed impairment. Tr. 14-20. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light exertional work as defined in the regulations except for standing, walking, and sitting each for six hours a day out of an eight-hour work setting. Tr. 20. In addition, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff should have no exposure at work to hazards or unprotected heights. Tr. 20. With this residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work. Tr. 21. However, at step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy, such as photocopying machine operator, office helper, and mail clerk. Tr. 23. Thus the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 23.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "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)). It is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id.

The court must weigh the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Reddick v. Chater , 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998)). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Id . (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin. , 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)); see also Edlund v. Massanari , 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading. Id .; see also Batson , 359 F.3d at 1193. However, the court cannot not ...


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