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Hilliker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 30, 2017

KATHY E. HILLIKER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Kathryn Tassinari Brent Wells Harder, Wells, Baron & Manning, P.C. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams Janice E. Hebert U.S. Attorney's Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Kathy Hilliker brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). Because the Commissioner's decision is free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record, it is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on August 30, 1960, and was fifty-two years old on her amended alleged disability onset date. Tr. 30.[1] Plaintiff has a ninth grade education and past relevant work experience as a sandwich maker. Tr. 29-30, 231. On October 25, 2012, Plaintiff filed her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and SSI. Tr. 20. Plaintiff's original alleged disability onset date was August 10, 2009. Id. Her claims were initially denied on February 14, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on June 26, 2013. Id. Plaintiff then requested a hearing on July 19, 2013. Id. On June 17, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Robert Frank Spaulding. Tr. 38. At that hearing, Plaintiff moved to voluntarily dismiss her DIB claim and to amend her alleged disability onset date to October 25, 2012. Tr. 40-41. ALJ Spaulding granted her motion. Id. On October 9, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion denying Plaintiff's SSI application. Tr. 31. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's opinion the Commissioner's final decision that Plaintiff now challenges in this Court. Tr. 1-9.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         At the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 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). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets its burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the Commissioner found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged disability onset date. Tr. 22 At step two, the Commissioner found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis; somatic dysfunction; degenerative disk disease of the cervical spine; pseudoseizures; major depressive disorder; and panic disorder. Id.

         At step three, the Commissioner found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 23-24. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[C]laimant is limited to no climbing of ladders, scaffolds, and ropes. The claimant is limited to no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant is limited to occupations that do not require the operation of vehicles such as automobiles, forklifts, carts, etc. The claimant is limited to simple and routine tasks. The claimant is limited to occasional interactions with coworkers and the public.

Tr. 25.

         At step four, the Commissioner determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 29-30.

         At step five, after considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the Commissioner determined that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including mail clerk and office helper. Tr. 30-31. Therefore, the Commissioner concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined by the Social Security Act. Tr. 31.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence means 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.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts consider the record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id.; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed.” Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also ...


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