United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Paul Papak United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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).
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.
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); 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).
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).
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,
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).
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.
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).
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).
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).
OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD
was born on February 18, 1982. Tr. 41, 169,
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,
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.
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.
The Medical and Administrative Record
medical and administrative record is extensive and the
parties are familiar with it. Accordingly, it will be set out
below only as relevant.
The Hearing Testimony - May 26, 2011
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.
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