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Sweeney v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 17, 2017

LISA SWEENEY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MERRILL SCHNEIDER Schneider Kerr & Robichaux Attorneys for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney JANICE E. HEBERT Assistant United States Attorney

          DAVID MORADO Regional Chief Counsel MARTHA A. BODEN Special Assistant United States Attorney Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANNA J. BROWN UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Lisa Sweeney seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) in which she denied Plaintiff's applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner and REMANDS this matter pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion and Order.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for SSI on June 18, 2012. Tr. 281.[2] Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of August 4, 1999. Tr. 281. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on July 23, 2014, and a supplemental hearing on October 28, 2014. Tr. 42-70, 71-88. Plaintiff, an independent medical expert, and a vocational expert (VE) testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearings.

         On January 30, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion in which he found Plaintiff is not disabled and, therefore, is not entitled to benefits. Tr. 21-36. On July 11, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On September 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on May 6, 1969. Tr. 183, 191. Plaintiff was 45 years old at the time of the hearings. Plaintiff has a high-school equivalency degree. Tr. 80, 319. The ALJ found Plaintiff does not have any past relevant work experience. Tr. 35, 65.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to herniated discs in her back, “severe sleep apnea, ” bipolar disorder, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, “severe” restless leg syndrome, arthritis, and high cholesterol. Tr. 318.

         Except as noted, Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence. See Tr. 23-35. After carefully reviewing the medical records, this Court adopts the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence.

         STANDARDS

         The initial burden of proof rests on the claimant to establish disability. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). To meet this burden, a claimant must demonstrate her inability “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). The ALJ must develop the record when there is ambiguous evidence or when the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the evidence. McLeod v. Astrue, 640 F.3d 881, 885 (9th Cir. 2011)(quoting Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459-60 (9th Cir. 2001)).

         The district 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 as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See also Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Molina, 674 F.3d. at 1110-11 (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009)). It is more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Id. (citing Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690).

         The ALJ is responsible for evaluating a claimant's testimony, resolving conflicts in the medical evidence, and resolving ambiguities. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). The court must weigh all of the evidence whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006).

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         I. The Regulatory Sequential Evaluation

         At Step One the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(I). See also Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011).

         At Step Two the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant does not have any medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         At Step Three the claimant is disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant's impairments 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724. The criteria for the listed impairments, known as Listings, are enumerated in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (Listed Impairments).

         If the Commissioner proceeds beyond Step Three, she must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of the sustained, work-related physical and mental activities the claimant can still do on a regular and continuing basis despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). See also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. “A ‘regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent schedule.” SSR 96-8p, at *1. In other words, the Social Security Act does not require complete incapacity to be disabled. Taylor v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 659 F.3d 1228, 1234-35 (9th Cir. 2011)(citing Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         At Step Four the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant retains the RFC to perform work she has done in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         If the Commissioner reaches Step Five, she must determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724-25. Here the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Lockwood v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010). The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a VE or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines set forth in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)(1).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At Step One the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 18, 2012, the application date. Tr. 23.

         At Step Two the ALJ found Plaintiff has the severe impairments of obesity; degenerative disc disease affecting the lumbar spine; mild degenerative joint disease; right trochanter bursitis; and mental disorders “variously described as bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and history of alcohol dependence.” Tr. 23-25.

         At Step Three the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments do not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1. Tr. 25-27. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work except that Plaintiff can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; sit four hours at one time and up to a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand and walk two hours at one time and up to a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally be exposed to extreme cold and vibration; and never work around hazards such as unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts. The ALJ found Plaintiff does not have any limitations in understanding or memory; has sufficient concentration, persistence, and pace to complete simple, routine tasks for a normal workday and workweek; should have only brief interactions with the general public and coworkers; and can accept supervision. Tr. 27-35.

         At Step Four the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not performed any past relevant work. Tr. 35.

         At Step Five, however, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy including as a laundry folder, a price marker, and a silver wrapper. Tr. 35-36. Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 36.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff contends the ...


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