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Moore v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 30, 2017

TRACIE DAWN MOORE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          John E. Haapala, Jr. of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, and Janice E. Herbert, Martha A. Boden, of Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael H. Simon United States District Judge

         Tracie Dawn Moore (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         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

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on December 8, 2011, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2008. AR 17. She was 36 as of the alleged disability onset date. Plaintiff alleged disability due to fibromyalgia, neuropathy in her legs and feet, nerve damage, and anxiety. AR 21. The Commissioner denied the application initially and upon reconsideration; Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 17. An administrative hearing was held on August 2, 2013. AR 35. The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. AR 17. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 9. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         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 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), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing “work which exists in the national economy”). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ began his opinion by noting that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. AR 19. The ALJ then applied the sequential process. AR 19-29. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. AR 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from two severe impairments, peripheral neuropathy and affective disorder. AR 19. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the regulations. AR 19.

         The ALJ next determined the Plaintiff's RFC. AR 20-21. The ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except that she was limited to only occasional interaction with the public and with coworkers. AR 20-21. At this step, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's symptom testimony and the submitted written lay testimony. AR 21-27. The ALJ did not fully credit all of the limitations and symptoms testified to by Plaintiff. AR 21-25. The ALJ also considered all of the medical evidence, including the opinion of Dr. June Worthington, Plaintiff's treating physician. AR 21-26.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work. AR 27. At step five the ALJ found that there were other jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 27-28. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act. AR 28.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the ALJ's determination Plaintiff has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act. Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in making his determination by: (1) improperly evaluating the opinion of Dr. Worthington; and (2) not fully crediting the limitations testified-to by Plaintiff.

         A. Failure to Credit the Opinion of Dr. Worthington.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical testimony of her treating physician, Dr. Worthington. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that Dr. Worthington's medical opinions deserved controlling weight and also that the ALJ did not give ...


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