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McCollam v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 6, 2017

CLINT STERLING McCOLLAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOLIE A. RUSSO, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Clint Sterling McCollam brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, 1381-83(f). All parties have consented to a Magistrate Judge in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 4, 2014, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. Tr. 193-205. Plaintiff's alleged disability began January 5, 2014, due to a “broken heel” and head trauma. Tr. 244. The Social Security Administration denied plaintiff's claims initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then filed a request for a hearing. Tr. 73, 84. On January 5, 2016, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 30. On March 24, 2016, the ALJ denied plaintiff's claim. Tr. 12-24. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-6.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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) (internal citation omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         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 sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments . . . the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner.

         At step five, the Commissioner must establish the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.966.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly rejecting a medical opinion; (2) failing to develop the record; and (3) failing to find plaintiff met Listing 12.05(C).

         1. Medical Opinion of Emile Stalick, Ph.D.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to appropriately incorporate limitations assessed by Dr. Emile Stalick in making his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) findings. Plaintiff argues such limitations preclude him from working.

         Physician opinions are weighted based on the nature and quality of their relationship with the patient. See Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2007). Factors for evaluating a physician-patient relationship include its length, frequency of examination, if the physician examined or treated the patient, and if the physician's opinion is supported by evidence and consistent with other opinions. Id. When a physician's opinion is ...


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