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Yeaple v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 30, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          Tim Wilborn, Attorney for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams Janice E. Hebert Attorneys for Defendant


          Garr M. King United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Steven Yeaple brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”). I reverse the decision of the Commissioner and remand for further proceedings.


         Yeaple filed applications for SSI and DIB on June 11, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of June 5, 2008. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a timely request for a hearing, Yeaple, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 19, 2014.

         On July 16, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Yeaple not disabled within the meaning of the Act and therefore not entitled to benefits. This decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council declined to review the decision of the ALJ on November 10, 2015.


         The Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for payment of disability insurance benefits to people who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1). In addition, under the Act, supplemental security income benefits may be available to individuals who are age 65 or over, blind, or disabled, but who do not have insured status under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a).

         The claimant must demonstrate an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to cause death or to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for either DIB or SSI due to disability. The evaluation is carried out by the ALJ. The claimant has the burden of proof on the first four steps. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) and 416.920(b). If the claimant is engaged in such activity, disability benefits are denied. Otherwise, the ALJ proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, disability benefits are denied.

         If the impairment is severe, the ALJ proceeds to the third step to determine whether the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one that is presumed to be disabling, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work which the claimant performed in the past. If the claimant is able to perform work she performed in the past, a finding of “not disabled” is made and disability benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) and 416.920(f).

         If the claimant is unable to perform work performed in the past, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step to determine if the claimant can perform other work in the national economy in light of his age, education, and work experience. The burden shifts to the Commissioner to show what gainful work activities are within the claimant's capabilities. Parra, 481 F.3d at 746. The claimant is entitled to disability benefits only if he is not able to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g).


         The court must affirm a denial of benefits if the denial is supported by substantial evidence and is based on correct legal standards. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion” and is more than a “mere scintilla” of the evidence but less than a preponderance. Id. (internal quotation omitted). The court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they “are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record[, ]” even if the evidence is susceptible to multiple rational interpretations. Id.


         The ALJ identified degenerative disc disease and degenerative joint disease of the cervical spine, left shoulder impingement, neuropathy secondary to type II diabetes mellitus, and anxiety disorder as Yeaple's severe impairments. The ALJ found that these impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or medically equal the requirements of any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ concluded Yeaple retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work. Yeaple can lift and carry 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, can sit for 6 hours during an eight-hour workday, and can stand/walk for six hours during an eight-hour workday. Yeaple, however, can have only occasional public and face-to-face coworker contact, and he cannot work around crowds or work in a small room (office-sized room or smaller) without windows.

         Given this RFC, Yeaple could not perform his past relevant work. Instead, the ALJ concluded Yeaple could perform jobs in the national economy such as budder, hand packager, and laundry worker. As a result, the ALJ found Yeaple not disabled under the meaning of the Act.


         Yeaple was 52 years old on his alleged disability onset date. He has an eighth grade education. He worked as a recreational vehicle repairer until he was laid off in June 2008. In explaining why his employment came to an end, Yeaple variously explained, “[E]mployers do not like the problems that I am experiencing and therefore I have been laid off, ” that “it is hard to find work at my age with my problems, ” that he had to take breaks because of his diabetes and the owner “felt that [he] was dispensable, ” and that he was “laid off from his last job when the company went out of business.” Tr. 241, 378, 435. Yeaple also reported he “has not been able to find work.” Tr. 422.

         Yeaple has been evaluated for mental and neurological issues. In October 2008, Michelle Whitehead, MHNP, PhD, diagnosed Yeaple with anxiety disorder, NOS. She noted Yeaple's immediate recall was in the “borderline” range, and his overall functioning was low average. Yeaple explained to Dr. Whitehead that he had worked as an RV technician for 15 years. He worked for the last company for five years. Yeaple's “manager quit and he had to deal with . . . the owner. [Yeaple] reports that the owner had ADHD and was difficult to deal with. [Yeaple] reports that [the owner] was hypersensitive about [Yeaple's] diabetes. He was laid off about five months ago. [Yeaple] notes that [the owner] recently committed suicide.” Tr. 368.

         Additionally, Yeaple explained to Dr. Whitehead that he cannot lift heavy loads due to a previous back injury, and that “no one is hiring due to the downturn in the economy. He is receiving unemployment benefits.” Id. Yeaple spent his days working around his friend's property or helping with his church's construction project. He handed out cards for doing RV repair and generally had one repair a month. He “mainly works to keep busy.” Tr. 370. He enjoyed hot rod cars and went to car shows. He enjoyed model railroading. Dr. Whitehead commented that Yeaple is “now having difficulty finding a new job in the industry he has worked in for many years. He reports trying to do RV repair jobs from individuals he knows or is referred to.” Tr. 371.

         A few months later, Gary Buchholz, MD, examined Yeaple. He diagnosed Yeaple with Type II diabetes mellitus, controlled with naturopathic medications. Yeaple told Dr. Buchholz he had injured his shoulder in 1984 and had surgery on it in 1998; Yeaple thought he could only lift 30 to 40 pounds, but he felt his range of motion was fine. On examination, Dr. Buchholz noted “normal power and facility of movement” and “[n]o neurologic evidence of ongoing difficulty in the shoulder.” Tr. 378. Yeaple explained that in his last job, “his regular boss quit and the owner took over and felt that Mr. Yeaple was dispensable” so he was laid off. Tr. 378. Yeaple commented that he often had to take breaks and drink water or eat food for his diabetes. Yeaple did not display any memory difficulties, although Yeaple complained of memory loss. Dr. Buchholz found no restrictions in standing, walking, or sitting and that Yeaple had been working “quite satisfactorily” until he was laid off “and it is not clear that he has deteriorated since that time.” Tr. 379. Dr. Buchholz noted that if Yeaple really had a permanent lifting restriction of 30 pounds, it should be honored, but he noted Yeaple “seems well muscled and it's not clear that he would have a specific restriction.” Id.

         Yeaple was treated in urgent care in 2010 for symptoms he experienced as a result of water intoxication. Yeaple reported “loading and unloading a lot of building materials lately. He says he drinks gallons of water a day.” Tr. 408.

         Yeaple established care with Dawna-Marie Fixott, M.D., for treatment of his diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol in August ...

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