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Schuhmacher v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

December 5, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant,



         Diane Schuhmacher (“plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and Titlen Disabilityhisui-ance Benefits (“DIB”) under the Social Secuiity Act. Based on a careful review of the record, the Commissioner's decision should be reversed and this case should be remanded for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed her most recent applications for DIB and SSI on April 3, 2012, alleging disability as of April 18, 2012.[1] (Tr. 246-53, 267.) Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 162-69, 178-82. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held hearings on April 22, 2014, and July 2, 2014; plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert. (Tr. 37-89.) On December 23, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 14-30.) Plaintifftimely requested review of the ALJ's decision and, after the Appeals Council denied her request for review, filed a complaint in this Court. (Tr. 1-7.)

         Factual Background

         Born on April 18, 1957, plaintiff was 55 years old on the amended alleged onset date of disability and 57 years old at the time of both hearings. (Tr. 246, 267.) She graduated from high school and completed some college. (Tr. 267.) Plaintiff worked previously as a sales clerk, bartender, caregiver, pricer/sorter, and delivery driver. (Tr. 87-88, 285, 290.) She alleges disability due to emphysema, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, migraines, and high blood pressure. (Tr. 284.)

         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. Hammockv. 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. Per ales, 402 U.S, 3 89, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinezv. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 19 8 6). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may notsubstitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachiv. As true, 486F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         The initial burden ofproofrests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howardv, Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, l486(9thCir, 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 detenriining whether a person is disabled. Bowenv. Yucker(, 482 U.S. 137, 140(1987). First, the Commissioner evaluates whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).

         At step two, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant meets or equals "one of a number of listed impairments that, . . are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U, S. at 141, At step four, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. 2OC.F.R. §§404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled.

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one of the five-step process outlined above, the AL J found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. (Tr. 16.) At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following medically determinable and severe impairments: "mild asthma, exacerbated by smoking tobacco and marijuana; methamphetamine abuse during the period under adjudication; mild to moderate cervical degenerative disease; and obesity." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff s impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. (Tr. 20.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ continued the sequential evaluation process to determine how plaintiff s medical limitations affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a limited range of light work:

She can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently in an eight-hour workday. She can sit for a total of six hours, stand for a total of six hours, and walk for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday, for a combined total of eight hour's of activity. She cannot be exposed to hazards such as unprotected heights and large moving equipment. She should avoid concentrated exposure to inhaled irritants such as odors, dust, fumes, and gases. She can understand and carry out moderately complex tasks, but not highly complex tasks.

Tr. 21.

         At step four, the AL J found plaintiff capable of performing her past relevant work as a bartender and sales clerk. (Tr. 29.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.)


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) omitting her migraines, anxiety, and depression as severe impairments at step two and, as a result, wrongfully rej ecting her subj ective symptom testimony related thereto[2]; (2) finding that her combined impairments did not render her disabled at step three; (3) rej ecting the medical opinions of ...

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