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Hanlon v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 6, 2017


          JAMES J. GANNON, LISA R. J. PORTER JP Law PC Attorneys for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney District of Oregon JANICE E. HEBERT Assistant United States Attorney JORDAN D. GODDARD Attorneys for Defendant


          Malcolm F. Marsh United States District Judge

          Plaintiff Sheila Hanlon seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, and application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") disability benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed DIB and SSI applications on February 2 8, 2013, alleging disability beginning December 30, 2008, due to acute rheumatoid arthritis, depression, abdominal pain, chest pain, and migraines. Tr. Soc. Sec. Admin. R. ("Tr.") at 82, ECF No. 13. Plaintiffs claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ held a hearing on January 13, 2015, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expert, Frank Lucas, also appeared at the hearing and testified. On February 24, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.

         Plaintiff was born in 1961, and was 47 years old on the alleged onset of disability date, and 53 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff has a high school education, attended a college of cosmetology, and has past relevant work as a rental agent, waitress, and travel consultant. Tr. 57, 72, 223.


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowenv. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Valentine v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009); Tackett v. Apfel 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work that exists in the national economy. Hill v. Astme, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through September 30, 2015. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has engaged in substantial gainful activity from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009.[1] At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, psoriatic arthritis, and fibromyalgia. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff s impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work with additional limitations: Plaintiff is limited to occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, but no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. Plaintiff has no limitations in balancing and stooping, but she can never kneel, crouch, or crawl. Finally, Plaintiff is limited to no exposure to extreme cold or hazards such as work at unprotected heights or around moving mechanical parts. Tr. 22.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a travel consultant. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act from December 30, 2008 through the date of the decision.


         On appeal to this court, Plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated her testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinions of her treating rheumatologist, W. Clay McCord, M.D; and (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated the lay testimony of her friend, Mary Johnson. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error. Alternatively, the Commissioner contends that even if the ALJ erred, Plaintiff has not demonstrated harmful error.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied 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." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (internal quotations omitted); Valentine, SI A F.3d at 690. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014); Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin,, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be affirmed; "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edhind v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001); Garroow, 759 F.3d at 1010.


         I. The ALJ Did Not Err in Discounting ...

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