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Guzman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

August 16, 2017

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



         Plaintiff Carmel Guzman brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits.


         In June 2012, plaintiff applied for DIB. She alleged disability beginning October 30, 2008, due to arthritis, phlebitis, dyslexia, obesity, and an audio processing disorder. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On November 6, 2014, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an ALJ. At the hearing, plaintiff testified and was represented by a non-attorney advocate. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified. The ALJ found plaintiff not disabled in a written decision issued December 8, 2014. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Gutierrez v. Comm'r Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F, 3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is subject to more than one interpretation but the Commissioner's decision is rational, the Commissioner must be affirmed, because "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         The initial burden of proof rests upon the plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v, Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the plaintiff 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. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged disability onset date. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, obesity, learning disorder and depression." Tr. 12; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c). At step three, the ALJ determined plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not meet or equal "one of the listed impairments" that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         After considering plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ concluded plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404, 1520(a)(4)(iv), (f). At step five, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform work existing in the national economy; specifically, plaintiff could work as a small parts assembler. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404, 1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied his applications for benefits.


         Plaintiff contends the ALJ committed reversible error at two places in the five-step analysis. First, plaintiff asserts the ALJ erroneously rejected the opinions of an examining psychologist and an agency reviewing psychologist without legally sufficient justification. As a result, plaintiff avers the RFC does not account for all her limitations. Second, plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to resolve a conflict between the testimony of the VE and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") regarding the requirements of the job of small parts assembler. Because small parts assembler is the only job the ALJ identified at step five, plaintiff asserts remand is necessary to determine whether there is work in the national economy she is able to perform.

         I. Treatment of Medical Opinions

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's treatment of two medical opinions; the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Stradinger and the opinion of agency reviewing psychologist Dr. Friedburg. There are three types of medical opinions in Social Security disability cases: those of treating, examining, and reviewing physicians. Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F, 3d 1195, 1201 02 (9th Cir. 2001). "Generally, a treating physician's opinion carries more weight than an examining physician's, and an examining physician's opinion carries more weight than a reviewing physician's." Id. at 1202; accord 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). Accordingly, "the Commissioner must provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting the uncontradicted opinion of an examining physician." Lester v. Chater,81 F.3d ...

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