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Bumala v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 26, 2017

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

          George J. Wall, Law Offices of George J. Wall, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Janice E. Hébert, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney's Office, District of Oregon, Lars J. Nelson, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Of Attorneys for Defendant.


          Michael H. Simon, District Judge.

         Plaintiff Gail Marie Bumala brings this action pursuant to section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act. For the following reasons, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         Bumala filed an application for DIB on November 20, 2012. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. After a request for a hearing, Bumala, represented by counsel, appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on August 19, 2014. On September 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Bumala 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 on February 5, 2016.

         Bumala's last date insured for benefits is December 31, 2004, so she must prove she was disabled by that date. AR 26. Bumala was subsequently awarded supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits on a new application, and the Commissioner found her disabled beginning in April 2013. Pl.'s Opening Br., Attach. 1, ECF 14-1 (SSI award letter). The present action, therefore, concerns the period between December 31, 2004, and March 31, 2013.


         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).

         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) & 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual will be determined to be disabled only if her physical or mental impairments are of such severity that she is not only unable to do her previous work but cannot, considering her 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) & 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is eligible for DIB 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 & 416.920. First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) & 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) & 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 if the impairment is equivalent to one of a number of listed impairments at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) & 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of those listed, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled. If not, 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 her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). The ALJ proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work which she performed in the past with this RFC assessment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & 416.920(a)(4)(iv). 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) & 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 her 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 she is not able to perform other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) & 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. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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. at 1110-11 (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. at 1110. The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 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) (quotation omitted).


         At step one, the ALJ found that Bumala did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of disability of February 12, 1999, through her last insured date of December 31, 2004. AR 26. At step two, the ALJ identified the following impairments as severe: ankle fracture, degenerative disc disease, history of myocardial infarction, obesity, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and personality disorder. Id.[2] At step three, the ALJ found that these impairments, either singly or in ...

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