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Crawford v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 4, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Katherine L. Eitenmiller and Brent Wells, Harder, Wells, Baron & Manning, P.C., Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Janice E. Hébert, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney's Office, Sarah Moum, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Of Attorneys for Defendant.



         Mr. Tony Allen Crawford seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.


         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.


         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on March 3, 2011, alleging disability beginning on July 1, 2006. Administrative Record (“AR”) 177, 178.[1] In Plaintiff's application, he alleged disabilities limiting his capacity for work, including illiteracy, a back injury, and foot pain. AR 214. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially on August 25, 2011, and on reconsideration on February 9, 2012. AR 112; AR 120. On February 24, Plaintiff requested a hearing, 2012, and Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Alan Beall presided over a hearing on April 3, 2013. AR 124; AR 34. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 20, 2013. AR 15. Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request on November 7, 2013. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking review of the final decision of the Commissioner before this Court on December 31, 2013. AR 521. Plaintiff and the Commissioner subsequently stipulated that an ALJ would “update the medical record; develop and evaluate the claimant's education; obtain vocational expert (“VE”) testimony; and offer the Plaintiff an opportunity for a new hearing” before issuing a decision. AR 513. Judge Marco Hernández entered a judgment and order of remand to that effect on October 28, 2014. Id.

         Plaintiff filed another application for SSI on July 1, 2014. AR 536. That claim was approved on March 12, 2015. Id. On April 20, 2015, the Appeals Council informed Plaintiff that the favorable determination had been reopened, good cause existed to find that the favorable determination was made in error, and that the Appeals Council intended to combine the reopened favorable determination with the unfavorable determination remanded by Judge Hernández for further proceedings and a new decision by an ALJ. AR 554. The Appeals Council determined that the favorable decision was not supported by substantial evidence because it relied on the erroneous finding that Plaintiff did not have past relevant work. AR 555.

         ALJ John Michaelsen presided over a hearing on Plaintiff's application on December 23, 2015. AR 416. On February 24, 2016, ALJ Michaelsen denied Plaintiff's claim. AR 394-406. Although during the hearing ALJ Michaelsen referenced the Appeals Council's decision reopening the favorable decision based on Plaintiff's July 1, 2014 application, in the ALJ's written decision, ALJ Michaelsen did not reference the July 1, 2014 application or the reopened favorable decision based that application. ALJ Michaelsen instead focused only on the March 3, 2011 application and the unfavorable decision based on that application, which had been remanded for further proceedings by Judge Hernández. The Court has jurisdiction to review ALJ Michaelsen's decision pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(d).

         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. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), ...

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