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Hyde v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 26, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Matthew Hyde brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.


         On November 24, 2014, plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging disability as of October 6, 2014. Tr. 147-53. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 69, 90. On October 16, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a video hearing; plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 29-59. The ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled on November 4, 2015. Tr. 11-24. Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision and, after the Appeals Council denied his request for review, plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-4.


         Born on January 13, 1961, plaintiff was fifty-three years old on the alleged onset date of disability and fifty-four years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 23-24. Plaintiff attended college and also received specialized training for medical lab technology. Tr. 166. He worked most recently as a medical lab technician. Tr. 166-67. Plaintiff alleges disability due to fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, cervical spinal stenosis, migraine headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, sensory neuropathy, asthma, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (“ADHD”), and bipolar disorder. Tr. 13-15, 165. Plaintiff received a 100% service-connected disability rating from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) in 2012. Tr. 893.


         The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, 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 last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         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. § 404.1520. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566.


         At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following medically determinable and severe impairments: “cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome; bipolar disorder with depression; and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)/posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Id. At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 15-17.

         As such, the ALJ continued the sequential evaluation to determine how plaintiff's medical limitations affected his ability to work. The ALJ resolved plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), ” except

he is further limited to no more than frequent stooping, balancing, or crawling, and no more than occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. He is limited to no more than frequent bilateral reaching, holding, grasping, fingering, or feeling. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks requiring no more than occasional interaction with coworkers and no more than brief, superficial interaction with the general public.

Tr. 17.

         At step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. Tr. 23. At step five, the ALJ relied on the VE's testimony and concluded plaintiff could perform a significant number of jobs existing in the national economy despite his impairments. Tr. 23-24. Specifically, the ALJ found plaintiff could perform the representative occupations of information router, mail clerk, and small products assembler. Tr. 24. Therefore, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id.


         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by: (1) giving little weight to his VA rating; (2) discrediting his testimony; (3) improperly evaluating the lay witness testimony; and (4) making a step five finding unsupported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Opening Br. 11-20.

         I.VA ...

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