United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division
OPINION AND ORDER
AIKEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Angela Lee Tavera 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 granted plaintiffs application for
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") but denied
plaintiffs application for Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB"). For the reasons set forth below, the
Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for
March 2012, plaintiff applied for both Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income
("SSI"). She alleged intellectual disability
beginning December 31, 1998. Plaintiffs application for SSI
was approved, but her application for DIB was denied-
initially on August 30, 2012, and upon reconsideration on
February 6, 2013. A hearing was set for August 11, 2014, but
plaintiff did not attend. Another hearing was held on January
12, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Riley Atkins. At
the hearing, plaintiff testified and was represented by
counsel. No other testimony was taken. On January 27, 2015,
the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. He found that
plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of sections
216(i) and 223(d) of the Act at any time through June 30,
2001, plaintiffs Title II date last insured
("DLI"). The Appeals Council denied review on
August 30, 2016, and plaintiff filed a complaint in this
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 of Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir.
2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). However, even a
decision supported by substantial evidence must be set aside
if the Commissioner did not apply the proper legal standards
in evaluating the evidence. Reddick v. Chafer, 157
F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). 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; "the court may not substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v.
Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).
plaintiff bears the initial burden of proving she is
disabled. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486
(9th Cir. 1986). To satisfy this burden, 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 analysis
for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). Five questions are asked, in order, until the
adjudicator arrives at a clear finding of disability or no
one of the process, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not
engage in any substantial gainful activity ("SGA")
at any time between the alleged onset date and the DLI
("the relevant period"). Plaintiff alleges a
disability onset date of December 31, 1998. Her DLI for Title
II purposes is June 30, 2001. Therefore, the relevant
period-during which plaintiff must show she was
disabled-ended more than 16 years ago; at the time of the
hearing, it was already 14 years past. There was no
contemporaneous medical evidence demonstrating plaintiffs
disability during the relevant period. Thus, at step two of
the process, the ALJ concluded that there was insufficient
medical evidence to support a finding of disability before
the DLI, Accordingly, the ALJ ended his analysis at step two,
largely persuaded by the lack of evidence.
concedes that any remand must be for further proceedings, as
the record is insufficiently developed for an immediate award
of benefits. The question is whether the ALJ's opinion
contains errors of law sufficiently harmful to justify a
remand of this case for an additional hearing. I find that it
alleges that the ALJ erred in failing to consult a medical
expert to assist in inferring an onset date of her
disability. It is unclear from the record whether that error
alone harmed plaintiffs claim, because that error's
effect has been obscured by other errors in the ALJ's
opinion, I find those errors were harmful and warrant a
remand of this case for additional proceedings.
The ALJ's Failure to Adequately Weigh the Medical
Evidence Was Legal Error.
weighing the medical evidence and resolving ambiguities
therein, "the ALJ is the final arbiter[.]"
Tommasetti v. Astrue,533 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir.
2008). Where "the record contains conflicting medical
evidence, the ALJ is charged with determining credibility and
resolving the conflict[.]" Chaudhry v. Astrue,688 F.3d 661, 671 (9th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks
omitted). Nevertheless, the ALJ must "explicitly reject
a medical opinion or set forth specific, legitimate reasons
for crediting one medical opinion over another[.]"
Garrison v.Colvin,759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th
Cir. 2014). An ALJ commits reversible error when he rejects
or assigns lesser weight to an opinion "while doing
nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without explanation
that another ...