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Thomas v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 30, 2015

MICHAEL ALLAN THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

ORDER

MARK D. CLARKE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Michael Allan Thomas ("Plaintiff') seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability benefits. This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reason set forth below, the decision is reversed and remanded.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was born in 1971. Tr. 28. He has a high school education. Tr. 28. He was enrolled in special education courses throughout his schooling. Tr. 817. Plaintiff began working on his family's farm at an early age. Tr. 817. He went on to work as a truck driver and, later, as an equipment operator. Tr. 817.

On August 13, 2009, Plaintiff fell while at work, landing on his right side and back. Tr. 356. He lost consciousness temporarily and suffered a mild to moderate concussion. Tr. 825. Thereafter, he began to complain of severe headaches, neck pain, back pain, blurred vision, tingling, dizziness, memory loss, cognitive problems, and nausea. Tr. 236, 393.

Over a year later, in October 2010, Plaintiff felt a "pop" in his head which coincided with bleeding from his nose and fluids leaking from his ears. Tr. 805. Immediately after the "pop, " Plaintiff felt as though his mood control, memory, personality, and handwriting returned "back to normal." Tr. 805. Medical reports confirm that Plaintiff substantially improved in his cognitive and emotional functioning after the "strange incident." Tr. 71, 811. However, Plaintiff continued to struggle with anxiety, irritability, depression, chronic pain, cognitive inefficiency, fatigue, syncopal episodes, weakness, poor dexterity, and impaired motor abilities.

Plaintiff first filed for Title II benefits on January 4, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 12, 2009. Tr. 13. The Commissioner denied the application initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 13. On March 2, 2011, Plaintiff filed a second application, again alleging disability since August 12, 2009. Tr. 13. On May 26, 2011, the Commissioner reopened Plaintiffs prior application and awarded him benefits for a closed period of mental disability from August 12, 2009 to April 22, 2011. Tr. 13. On July 26, 2011, Plaintiff submitted a request for reconsideration of the closed period determination. The Commissioner denied the request and found Plaintiff not disabled for the entire period from August 12, 2009 through the date of the determination. Tr. 13. At Plaintiffs request, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert Kingsley on November 7, 2012. Tr. 12-13. Plaintiff appeared and testified. Tr. 13. He was represented by counsel. Tr. 13. On March 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 10. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's denial the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1. This appeal followed.

DISABILITY 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 P.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.P.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.P.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.P.R. §§ 404.1510; 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.P.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.P.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.P.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.P.R. §§ 404.1509; 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.P.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.P.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.P.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); ...

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