United States District Court, D. Oregon
Nancy J. Meserow, Portland, OR 97219. Attorney 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; Jordan D. Goddard, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Seattle, WA. Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL H. SIMON, District Judge.
Cheryl Ann Colter seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this matter is remanded for the calculation and payment of benefits.
A. The Application
Ms. Colter filed applications for benefits on December 29, 2011, alleging disability beginning on October 24, 2004. Tr. 290. She alleged disability due to "severe depression, memory problems, and right shoulder-rotator cuff" issues. Tr. 295. The Commissioner denied her application initially and upon reconsideration; thereafter, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 128-41; 145-60; 11. An administrative hearing was held on November 25, 2013. On December 31, 2013, the ALJ found Ms. Colter not disabled. Tr. 12-32. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Colter's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-7. Ms. Colter now seeks judicial review of that decision.
B. The Sequential Analysis
A claimant is disabled if he or she is 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). "Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act." Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (disability insurance benefits), 416.920 (supplemental security income); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:
1. Is the claimant performing "substantial gainful activity?" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(I). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510; 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Unless expected to result in death, an impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a); 416.921(a). This impairment must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509; 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment "meet or equal" one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis proceeds beyond step three. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e); 404.1545(b)-(c); 416.920(e); 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her "past relevant work" with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v); 404.1560(c); 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.
See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).
The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, "taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience." Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566; 416.966 (describing "work which exists in the national economy"). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.
C. The ALJ's Decision
The ALJ applied the sequential process. Tr. 17-26. At step one, the ALJ found Ms. Colter had engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of October 24, 2004 until February 9, 2010. Tr. 17. The ALJ found Ms. Colter met the insured-status requirement of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2015. At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Colter's depression, anxiety, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (shortness of breath), narcotic abuse and dependence, and right shoulder issues were severe impairments. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Colter did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled one of the specific impairments listed in the regulations. Tr. 19.
The ALJ determined that from the date on which Ms. Colter stopped working through the date of the decision, Ms. Colter had the RFC to perform medium work with the following restrictions: she can lift 50 pounds occasionally, lift and carry 25 pounds occasionally, balance frequently, climb stairs and ramps occasionally, stoop, kneel and crouch occasionally, and push, pull, and reach overhead with the right upper extremity occasionally; she can never crawl and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she must avoid more than occasional exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, vibration, and irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, chemicals, and poorly ventilated spaces; she is fully capable of learning, remembering, and performing simple, routine, and repetitive work tasks, involving simple work instructions, which are performed in a routine, predictable, and low stress work environment (defined as one in which there is a regular production pace, few work place changes, and no "over the shoulder" supervision); and she may have occasional contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the public. Tr. 20. In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ considered Ms. Colter's testimony, but found her not fully credible. Tr. 22.
At step four, the ALJ found Ms. Colter was not able to perform her past relevant work as a bookkeeper. Tr. 25. At step five, the ALJ found Ms. Colter retained the RFC to perform occupations including kitchen helper, hand packager, and lab helper. Tr. 26.
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 ...