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Johnson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 26, 2017

STEVEN E. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          Katherine L. Eitenmiller Mark A. Manning Harder, Wells, Baron & Manning, P.C. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams Janice E. Hebert U.S. Attorney's Office District of Oregon Lars J. Nelson Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Steven Johnson brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying his 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 was free of legal error and supported by substantial evidence in the record, it is affirmed and this case is dismissed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on July 16, 1969, and was forty-three years old on the date that his application for benefits was filed. Tr. 24.[1] Plaintiff has a high school education and no past relevant work experience. Id. Plaintiff filed his application for SSI on February 19, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 12, 2000. Tr. 10. His claim was initially denied on June 24, 2013, and on reconsideration on December 31, 2013. Id. An administrative hearing was held on January 28, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Elizabeth Watson. Id. Plaintiff appeared in person in North Bend and ALJ Watson presided over the hearing from Eugene by video. Id. ALJ Watson issued a written opinion denying Plaintiff's application on March 11, 2015. Tr. 25. The Appeals Council denied reconsideration of Plaintiff's application, making the ALJ's opinion the Commissioner's final decision that Plaintiff now challenges in this Court. Tr. 1-6.

         Prior to filing Plaintiff's application currently before the Court, Plaintiff received benefits for a period of time. In March of 2000, Plaintiff's home was broken into and he was shot four times: three times in the body and once in the head. Tr. 430. As a result of the injuries that he suffered, Plaintiff received benefits from March 12, 2000, through September 22, 2009. Tr. 10. Plaintiff appealed the cessation of his benefits and on September 29, 2011, an ALJ denied that appeal. Tr. 106-16. Therefore “[a]ny discussion of the period prior to September 29, 2011, is for background purposes only and is not an implied reopening.” Tr. 10.

         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 ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since February 19, 2013. Tr. 12.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:

history of gunshot wounds, post-concussion syndrome, headache, chronic rhino sinusitis, cervical degenerative disc disease, lumbar degenerative disc disease, De Quervain's tendonitis, right knee medical meniscus tear and bursitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), cognitive disorder, and affective disorder[.]

Id. The ALJ also determined that several of Plaintiff's impairments were not severe, including his: alcohol abuse; obesity; cannabis abuse; hypertension; left knee arthroscopy for a meniscus tear; and bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome. Tr. 13-14 Regarding Plaintiff's carpel tunnel syndrome, the ALJ concluded that it was not severe for the required twelve-month period based on Plaintiff's history of improvement with conservative treatment, gaps in treatment history, denial of weakness or loss of functioning, positive strength and reflex test results, successful surgery, and the fact that some of the condition's symptoms were accounted for in his De Quervain's tendonitis diagnosis. Tr. 13.

         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. 14. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can lift twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; and sit, stand, and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant is limited to no more than occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant is limited to no more than occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. He is limited to no more than occasional bilateral overhead reaching. With the right, he is limited to no more than frequent handling. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to noise. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ...

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