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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 1, 2017

WILLIE J. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOLIE A. RUSSO United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Willie Williams brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Title XVI Social Security Income (“SSI”). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to 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 further proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In May 2012, plaintiff applied for SSI alleging disability as of January 5, 2006. Tr. 189-94. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 103-06, 110-11. On November 5, 2014, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”); plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 37-65. On January 15, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 13-25. After the Appeals Council denied his request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-7.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Born on December 31, 1976, plaintiff was 29 years old on the alleged onset date and 37 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 189. Plaintiff graduated from high school and attended classes at Western Oregon University. Tr. 207, 290. He worked previously as a recycling laborer, pizzeria manager, and shipping supervisor. Tr. 207, 278. Plaintiff alleges disability due to: bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and back pain. Tr. 206.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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] conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). 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. § 416.920. At step one, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(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 . . . the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(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. § 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one of the five step sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. Tr. 15. At step two, the ALJ determined the following impairments were medically determinable and severe: “degenerative disc disease, obesity, bipolar disorder NOS, depression, PTSD, [and] anxiety.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of the listed impairment. Id.

         Because he did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work except that he is limited to: “no more than frequent climbing of ramps or stairs, balancing, and crawling”; “no more than occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, stooping, kneeling, and crouching”; “simple ...


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