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Degner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 22, 2017

VIOLET A. DEGNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          George J. Wall Law Offices of George J. Wall Attorney for Plaintiff Billy J. Williams United States Attorney District of Oregon.

          Janice E. Hebert Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay Special Assistant United States Attorney Office of General Council Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          GARR M. KING, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Ms. Violet A. Degner seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner”) final decision denying her application for Child's Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the 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)). It means “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 to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Ms. Degner protectively filed applications for Child's Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) on March 1, 2012, and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on March 15, 2012. AR 84. She alleges disability due to bipolar disorder, plus other mental disorders; bipolar II disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder. AR 304. In both applications, Ms. Degner alleged disability beginning July 1, 2011. AR 84. Ms. Degner was 21 years of age on the alleged disability onset date. Id. The Commissioner denied her application initially on June 18, 2012, and again on September 19, 2012, after reconsideration. AR 205-07, 208-09. Ms. Degner filed a written request for hearing on November 5, 2012. AR 84, 210. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Atkins on January 27, 2014. AR 104-39.

         The ALJ issued a decision finding Ms. Degner not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act on July 9, 2014. AR 84-97. Ms. Degner filed a timely request for review of the ALJ's decision on July 18, 2014. AR 79-80. The Appeals Council denied her request for review on December 18, 2015, finding that new information submitted for the first time before the Appeals Council did not provide a basis for reviewing the ALJ's decision. AR 2. The Appeals Council also found that additional evidence submitted by Ms. Degner from Cascadia BHC and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (“PMHNP”) Kristin Cummings related to a period of time later than the ALJ's decision of July 9, 2014, and therefore could not affect the ALJ's decision. AR 2. Ms. Degner now seeks review of the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council's refusal to incorporate this new evidence into the record.

         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 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); 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). An impairment or combination of impairments 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). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or 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 continues. 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 ...

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