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Gonzales v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 5, 2017

KATIE GONZALES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Paul Papak United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Katie Gonzales ("Gonzales") filed this action June 25, 2009, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). This court has jurisdiction over Gonzales' action pursuant to 42 U.S.C, § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). I have considered all of the parties' briefs and all of the evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision should be REVERSED and REMANDED for the immediate payment of benefits.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a 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 claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4), At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R, §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(h). An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404, 1521(b), 416.921(b)[1]; see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impairments are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir, 1996), citing Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153-154. "An impairment or combination of impairments can be found 'not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on an individual[']s ability to work.'" Id., quoting S.S.R. 85-28, 1985 SSR LEXIS 19 (1985).

         If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R, §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and the fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, [2] despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a); see also S.S.R. No. 96-8p, 1996 SSRLEXIS 5 (July 2, 1996).

         At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f). In the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof shifts, for the first time, to the Commissioner.

         At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether a person with those characteristics and RFC could perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate the existence in significant numbers in the national economy of jobs capable of being performed by a person with the RFC assessed by the ALJ between the third and fourth steps of the five-step process, the claimant is found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566, 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet that burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A reviewing court must affirm an Administrative Law Judge's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record, See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). '"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007), citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).

         The court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id., quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See id., citing Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F, 3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Moreover, the court may not rely upon its own independent findings of fact in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence of record. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003), citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of] more than one rational interpretation." Magallcmes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), citing Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984).

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD[3]

         Gonzales was born on February 18, 1982. Tr. 41, 169, 176.[4] On June 25, 2009, Gonzales filed applications for DIB and SSI benefits based on bipolar disorder, depression, migraines, and asthma. Tr. 169-79, 199. Both applications alleged a disability onset date of October 30, 2008. Tr. 169, 176. Both claims were denied initially on November 19, 2009, and upon reconsideration on April 13, 2010. Tr. 91, 96. Gonzales is a high school graduate, and has completed some college credits. Tr. 45-46, 206. She worked as a waitress, cab dispatcher, telemarketer, and customer service representative. Tr. 50-53, 77-78, 200.

         On May 26, 2011, Gonzales appeared and testified before ALJ Rudy Murgo, and on August 17, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Gonzales was not disabled at any time from October 30, 2008 through the date of the decision. Tr. 30. Gonzales appealed her decision to the United States District Court, which reversed the ALJ's decision on July 18, 2014, and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. Tr. 1496-1512. In the interim, Gonzales filed a subsequent claim for SSI on June 5, 2013, and the State Agency determined she was disabled as of that date. Tr. 1489.

         On December 17, 2015, a second ALJ hearing was held before ALJ Murgo. Tr. 1369-88. On January 6, 2016, the ALJ issued his decision finding Gonzales has not been disabled from October 30, 2008 through the date of the decision. Tr. 1404. Gonzales timely appealed the ALJ's decision.

         I. The Medical and Administrative Record

         The medical and administrative record is extensive and the parties are familiar with it. Accordingly, it will be set out below only as relevant.

         II. The Hearing Testimony - May 26, 2011

         On May 26, 2011, Gonzales appeared for a hearing conducted before an ALJ in connection with her DIB and SSI applications. Tr. 37-86. Gonzales, her father, her counsel, and a VE were present and testified. Id. Gonzales testified that she cared for her two children, an eleven year old son, and a six year old daughter and had completed high school and some college, but did not have a college degree. Tr. 43, 45. She described her past employment as a taxi cab dispatcher, waitress, telemarketer, and customer service representative. Tr. 50-53. She explained she could not maintain employment because she cannot stay focused and is pain, noting that she gets "out of whack" because of her medical conditions, which she described as pseudotumor cerebri, significant headaches, and vision problems. Tr. 53, 55, 60. Gonzales described her daily activities include caring for her children, doing laundry, and cooking, but that she relies on her parents for reminders to complete tasks and to help if her headaches become debilitating. Tr. 65-69, 71.

         Mr. Daniel Raymond Gonzales ("Mr. Gonzales") testified on behalf of his daughter. Tr. 73-75. He explained that she does not "get it" when supervisors try to explain ...


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