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Metzler v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

August 24, 2017

COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          PATRICIA SULLIVAN United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Stephen J. Metzler brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied plaintiff Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. For the following reasons, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB on November 30, 2012, with an alleged disability onset date of July 1, 2007. Tr. 166-72.[1] His claim was denied initially on March 18, 2013, and on reconsideration on July 25, 2013. Tr. 89-101, 102-16. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Riley J. Atkins held a hearing on February 25, 2015. Tr. 39-88. Plaintiff testified at the hearing, represented by counsel; a vocational expert (“VE”), Gary R. Jesky, also testified, as did plaintiff's wife, Emily Anne Metzler-Somervell. Id. On April 1, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act and denying him DIB. Tr. 24-34. Plaintiff requested review before the Appeals Council, Tr. 19, which was denied August 18, 2016, Tr. 1-4. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court.[2]


         Born in 1970, plaintiff is married and has two young children. Tr. 43, 55, 166, 221, 234. He graduated from high school and has completed some college coursework. Tr. 196, 544. Plaintiff previously worked as a warehouse manager and test/service center manager, and in contracting and sales. Tr. 44, 49, 100, 176, 188, 247, 288. Plaintiff suffers from multiple sclerosis (“MS”), which causes intense fatigue and significant vision problems. Tr. 43, 46-48, 186, 196. Plaintiff has also experienced depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and an anxiety disorder. Tr. 54, 94, 306, 335, 410, 547, 551.


         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) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (“[The court] must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”). The “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) (quotation omitted).

         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 process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment meets or equals “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), an assessment of work-related activities the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). The Commissioner proceeds to the fourth step to determine whether the claimant can perform “past relevant work.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.


         The ALJ first found that plaintiff last met the Act's insured status requirements on December 31, 2012. Tr. 26. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date through the date last insured. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the severe impairment of MS. Id. The ALJ found that the following were medically determinable but not severe impairments for plaintiff: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use, and an anxiety disorder. Tr. 27. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 28. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, with certain physical and social limitations. Tr. 28-29. At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 31. At step five, the ALJ found that plaintiff could ...

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