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Holly v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 30, 2017

JAMIE M. HOLLY, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Michael J. McShane United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jamie Michele Holly brings this action for judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for an immediate award of benefits.


         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability as of December 15, 2008. Tr. 195-200. The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 144-160. A hearing was held before an ALJ on March 21, 2014. Tr. 28. After the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to March 3, 2009, the date of her surgery. Tr. 10, 212. On April 11, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 7-27. Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision which was denied by the Appeals Council on September 30, 2015 making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.


         The reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence on the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r for Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “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 v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, this Court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986).

         The Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record; if evidence exists to support more than one rational interpretation, the court must defer to the Commissioner's decision. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193; Aukland v. Massanari, 257 F.3d 1033, 1034-35 (9th Cir. 2000) (when evidence can rationally be interpreted in more than one way, the court must uphold the Commissioner's decision). A reviewing court, however, “cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision on a ground that the Administration did not invoke in making its decision.” Stout v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). A court may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless. Id. at 1055-56. “[T]he burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the agency's determination.” Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009).


         I. ALJ's Decision

         The Social Security Administration uses a five step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If claimant satisfies his or her burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. Id.

         Here, the ALJ found at step one of the sequential analysis that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA) since the alleged onset date. Tr. 12. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, a history of rotator cuff tear with arthroscopic surgery, bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, and borderline intellectual functioning. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Between steps three and four, the ALJ found that retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work, but is precluded from doing any lifting, reaching, pushing or pulling with the right upper extremity above shoulder level. Tr. 15. She can perform simple, repetitive, routine tasks with no more than occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the general public. Id. At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is unable to perform past work, but at step five, found plaintiff to retain the ability to work as a sorter, assembler, or folder. Tr. 21-22.

         II. Issues raised by Plaintiff

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings on five main points: (1) the ALJ erred in his consideration of the medical opinions; (2) the ALJ failed to give clear and convincing reasons for failing to credit Plaintiff's testimony; (3) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's intellectual limitations do not meet the criteria of Listing 12.05C; (4) the ALJ erred in failing to credit the lay evidence; and (5) the Commissioner failed to meet her burden of proving that Plaintiff retains the ability to perform “other work” in the national economy. Because the Court finds that the ALJ erred in failing to find Plaintiff disabled under Listing 12.05C, the Court does not address Plaintiff's other allegations of error.

         III.Plaintiff's intellectual limitation under the ...

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