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Meza v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 8, 2017

TROY L. MEZA, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          RICHARD F. McGINTY P.O. Box 12806 Salem, OR 97309 Attorney for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney District of Oregon, JANICE E. HEBERT Assistant United States Attorney, LARS J. NELSON Special Assistant United States Attorneys Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Malcolm F. Marsh United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Troy L. Meza seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, and application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, I affirm the Commissioner's decision.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On November 12, 2009, Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI disability benefits. On November 16, 2009, Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB benefits. In both applications Plaintiff alleged disability beginning May 18, 2001. Plaintiff s claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). Plaintiff received an unfavorable decision from ALJ Richard Say on November 4, 2011. Plaintiff submitted new evidence to the Appeals Council, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Plaintiff appealed to the District Court and the case was remanded to consider the new evidence, reconsider Plaintiffs RFC, and reconsider the hypothetical posed to the VE.

         On remand, ALJ Dan R. Hyatt held a hearing on October 1, 2014. After the hearing, a Cooperative Disability Investigation Unit ("CDIU") fraud investigation was performed. Plaintiffs case was then assigned to ALJ Steve Lynch due to ALJ Hyatt's retirement. ALJ Lynch conducted a hearing on May 4, 2015 and ordered a consultative examination. Tr. 280, 519, 540. On July 30, 2015, ALJ Lynch conducted a supplemental hearing at which Plaintiff appeared with his attorney and testified. Special Agent Steve Armbruster with CDIU, David Davis, Plaintiffs parole officer, and Paul Morrison, a Vocational Expert, also testified at the July 30, 2015 hearing. On August 28, 2015, ALJ Lynch issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 258, The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's August 2015 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.

         Plaintiff was born on May 16, 1975, and was 26 years old on the alleged onset of disability date. Plaintiff completed high school and has worked at various jobs, but his earnings did not rise to the level of substantial gainful activity.

         THE ALJ'S DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         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. § 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Valentine v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy. Hill v. As'true, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2005, At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: learning disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations: Plaintiff has limited reading, writing, and math skills; he is limited to unskilled work and routine tasks involving superficial interaction with the public and co-workers but no close cooperation or coordination; and he should not perform fast-paced work.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as cleaner, janitor, and scrap sorter. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act from May 18, 2001 through the date of the decision.

         ISSUES ON REVIEW

         On appeal to this court, Plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ took actions beyond the scope of Judge Mosman's remand order; and (2) the RFC fails to encompass all of his functional limitations. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ did not err, or alternatively, that Plaintiff has not demonstrated harmful error, STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The District 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); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (internal quotations omitted); Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014); Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, Bat son v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be affirmed; "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edhindv. Massanari, 253 F, 3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir, 2001); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010.

         DISCUSSION

         I. The ALJs Did Not Violate the Law of the Case or Rule of Mandate

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ took three actions that fell outside the scope of the remand order: (1) ALJ Hyatt ordered the CDIU report; (2) ALJ Lynch admitted and considered the CDIU report and consultative examination performed by Paul S. Stoltzfus, Psy.D.; and (3) the ALJ found Plaintiffs ADHD and learning disorder severe impairments at step two. PI. Br. at 7-8, ECF No. 14. Plaintiff contends the ALJ's actions in obtaining new evidence and making new findings violate the rule of mandate and law of the case doctrines.

         In support of his applications for SSI and DIB, Plaintiff did not submit any medical evidence from his treating providers.[1] Tr, 17, Instead, Plaintiff submitted a neuropsychological evaluation conducted by one-time examining physician Paul E. Guastadisegni, Ph.D., dated September 15, 2009. Tr. 200-16. Dr. Guastadisegni diagnosed Plaintiff with cognitive disorder not otherwise specified, depression not otherwise specified, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, ADHD (combined type) and personality disorder not otherwise specified with Cluster B traits. Tr. 216. Notably, Dr. Guastadisegni opined that Plaintiff required a "structured environment that has clear directions and allows him to process and move at his own pace." Tr. 213. However, ALJ Say discounted much of Dr. Guastadisegni's opinion and found that Plaintiff could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with some limitations, and therefore determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 16.

         After ALJ Say's unfavorable decision, Plaintiff was referred by his attorney for a neuropsychological evaluation performed by David M. Freed, Ph.D., dated April 4, 2012. Tr. 245, Plaintiff submitted Dr. Freed's 2012 evaluation to the Appeals Council. Tr. 4-5. That evaluation was made part of the administrative record, but the Appeals Council declined Plaintiffs request for review.[2] Tr. 1-6.

         On appeal to the District Court, the Honorable Michael W. Mosman remanded the case for the ALJ to consider Dr. Freed's 2012 neuropsychological evaluation. Tr. 355. Judge Mosman stated:

Now, I'm not suggesting that therefore we know exactly what to do with Dr. Freed's evaluation and that it should be built into the RFC. I'm simply noting that 1 do find now that this new evidence creates a problem for which remand is appropriate.
So I'm ordering remand to evaluate this new evidence. It's kind of an unfortunate system where it happens this way, but there we are. And specifically to determine if anything in Dr. Freed's post-hearing evaluation, including impulse control, in light of all the other evidence in the case, merits amending the RFC and ...

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