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Fenn v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

September 21, 2017

MATTHEW ERIC FENN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN AIKEN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Matthew Eric Fenn 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") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         In August 2011, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. He alleged disability beginning March 1, 2010, [1] due to degenerative disc disease, cognitive deficits stemming from head trauma, bipolar disorder, and PTSD, Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to July 18, 2011, the point at which he stopped working.

         Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. On October 10, 2013, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an ALJ. At plaintiffs counsel's request, the ALJ held the record open and ordered a consultative psychological evaluation to assess plaintiffs cognitive limitations and traumatic brain injury. On June 17, 2014, the ALJ convened a second hearing. That hearing addressed the evaluation of the consultative examiner as well as a second psychological evaluation, also conducted after the first hearing.

         The ALJ found plaintiff not disabled in a written decision issued July 18, 2014. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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. Massanariy 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." Edhmd v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).

         COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         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); id. § 416.920(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)®, (b); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine status post-laminectomy, mild degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, asthma, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and marijuana dependence/abuse." Tr. 23; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), (c); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(h), (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); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         The ALJ then assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id. § 416.920(e). In addition to other limitations not relevant to this appeal, the ALJ found plaintiff was

able to understand, remember, and carry out only simple instructions that can be learned in 30 days or less. The claimant cannot have direct public contact. He is able to perform in a low-stress job, which is defined as work that involves minimal changes in the work setting and work duties.

Tr. 25. At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff could not perform any of his 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 products assembler, an electronics assembler, or an office helper. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied his applications for benefits.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ committed three harmful errors with respect to the extent of his cognitive limitations.[2] First, plaintiff argues the ALJ gave little weight to his testimony about the extent of his mental limitations without providing legally sufficient justification. Second, plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by giving little weight to the opinion of examining psychologist Dr. Taubenfield. Finally, plaintiff avers the ALJ improperly ...


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