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Rowland v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 13, 2017

DONALD E. ROWLAND, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Jenna L. Mooney and Kathleen R. Dent, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and Daniel S. Jones, Law Offices of Charles E. Binder and Harry J. Binder, LLP, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Janice E. Hébert, Assistant United States Attorney; United States Attorney's Office, District of Oregon, Erin F. Highland, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Of Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael H. Simon, United States District Judge.

         Donald E. Rowland, Jr. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). Because the Commissioner's decision was not based on the proper legal standards and the findings were not supported by substantial evidence, the decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The District Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Molina v. Astrue, 673 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion” and is more than a “mere scintilla” of the evidence but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1110-11 (quotation omitted). The Court must uphold the ALJ's findings if they “are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record[, ]” even if the evidence is susceptible to multiple rational interpretations. Id. at 1110. The Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Batson v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted).

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Mr. Rowland filed his application for DIB on April 3, 2013, alleging disability as of April 21, 2012. AR 140-45. Born in September 1967, Mr. Rowland was 44 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 47 years old at the time of the administrative hearing. AR 41, 140, 160. He speaks English and is a high school graduate. AR 165. He alleges disability due to bulging disc injury, a herniated disc, cervical and lumbar spine impairment, severe back pain, multiple joint arthritis, hypertensive cardiovascular disease (hypertension), and high cholesterol.

         AR 164. The Commissioner denied Mr. Rowland's application initially and upon reconsideration, and Mr. Rowland requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 98-99. After an administrative hearing, the ALJ found Mr. Rowland not disabled in a decision dated August 3, 2015. AR 16-28. On October 18, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Rowland's request for review. AR 1-6. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Mr. Rowland now seeks review in this Court.

         B. The Sequential Analysis

         A claimant is disabled if he or 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. § 432(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1510. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe” under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c). If ...

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