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Harris v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 18, 2017

SANDRA LORRAINE HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Merrill Schneider, Schneider, Kerr, and Robichaux, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Janice E. Hébert, Assistant United States Attorney, Kathy Reif, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael H. Simon United States District Judge.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Ms. Sandra Lorraine Harris seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         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 filed an application for DIB and SSI on August 1, 2011, alleging disability beginning on March 3, 2009. Administrative Record (“AR”) 199, 206. In her application, reconsideration, and appeal council petition, Plaintiff specifically alleged disability due to back pain, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, acid reflux, depression, and anxiety. AR 75-76, 89-90, 104-05, 120-22, 226, 382, 402. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially on March 7, 2012, and upon reconsideration on February, 4, 2013. AR 134-39, 140-43, 150-52, 153-54. Thereafter, she requested a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Rudolph Murgo. AR 155-57. An administrative hearing was held on July 3, 2014. AR 33. After leaving the record open for additional evidence, on July 22, 2014, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled from March 3, 2009, to July 22, 2014. AR 19. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. “[A] civil action may be brought only after . . . [the Commissioner] has made a final decision on the claim.” Bass v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 872 F.2d 832, 833 (9th Cir. 2012). 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 found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013 based on her previous quarters of employment. AR 19-21. To receive DIB, Plaintiff needs to establish disability on or before that date. AR 19. SSI benefits are not dependent on insured status. The ALJ then applied the sequential process. AR 21-26.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date of March 3, 2009. AR 21. At step two, the ALJ found that the record established that Plaintiff suffered from osteoarthritis, obesity, and an anxiety disorder at the level of a severe impairment resulting in significant work-related functional limitations. AR 21. The ALJ further found that the record contained information on prescription drug abuse and marijuana use, but that this substance abuse did not result in work-related functional limitations and did not qualify as severe. AR 22.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the severity of one of the specific impairments listed in the regulations. Id. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's osteoarthritis and obesity, separately and in combination, did not meet any criteria of § 1.04 (disorders of the spine) or any other listing, and that no physician had concluded that Plaintiff met any listing criteria. AR 22; see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, § 1.04 (2014). The ALJ found further that Plaintiff's mental impairments and symptoms did not meet the listings for § 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders) or § 12.09 (substance abuse disorders).[1] AR 22; see 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, §§ 12.06, 12.09 (2014). While Plaintiff has mild restrictions in activities of daily living and moderate difficulties in social functioning according to the ALJ's findings, paragraph B of § 12.06 requires two findings of “marked” difficulties in order to meet the listed criteria. AR 22; see 20 C.F.R. ยง 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, ...


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