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Cowie v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

November 29, 2017

CHRISTINA L. COWIE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Youlee Yim You United States Magistrate Jude

         Plaintiff Cristina A. Cowie (“Cowie”) brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge enter final orders and judgment in this case 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.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         On August 19, 2012, Cowie applied for DIB, alleging disability as of January 15, 2011. Tr. 156-57. Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 91-94, 98-100.

         On January 27, 2015, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), wherein Cowie was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 28-62. On April 16, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Cowie not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 9-23. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, Cowie filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-4.

         BACKGROUND

         Born on August 16, 1974, Cowie was 36 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 40 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 33, 156. She obtained a GED in 1994 and worked previously as a deli worker, food prep worker, pizza cook, and manager. Tr. 54-56, 168. Cowie alleges disability due to back pain, leg weakness, peripheral neuropathy, seizures, incontinence, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). Tr. 40-41, 167, 203, 211.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         Disability is the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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 engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is performing substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) & (b).

         At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has “a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment” or combination of impairments that meets the 12- month durational requirement. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) & (c). Absent a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determines whether the impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (Listing of Impairments). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) & (d). If the impairment or combination of impairments is determined to meet or equal any listed impairment, the claimant is disabled. Id.

         If adjudication proceeds beyond step three, the ALJ evaluates medical and other relevant evidence in assessing the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of work-related activities the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); SSR 96-8p, available at 1996 WL 374184.

         At step four, the ALJ uses the RFC to determine whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) & (e). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, then at step five the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & (g).

         The claimant bears the initial burden of establishing disability. Lockwood v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). If the process reaches step five, however, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that jobs exist in the national or local economy within the claimant's RFC. Id. If the Commissioner meets this burden, then the claimant is not disabled; otherwise, the claimant is disabled and entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) & (g).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Cowie last met the insured status of the Act on December 31, 2014, and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, January 15, 2011. Tr. 11.

         At step two, the ALJ determined the following impairments were medically determinable and severe: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, COPD, and peripheral neuropathy. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Cowie's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the ...


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