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Matula v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

December 15, 2017

TINA MARIE MATULA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          HONORABLE PAUL PAPAK, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Tina Marie Matula filed this action on September 3, 2016, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). ECF No. 1. This court has jurisdiction over Matula's action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). All parties have consented to a Magistrate Judge in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). I have considered all of the parties' briefing and the relevant evidence in the administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this case is DISMISSED.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a 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 determining whether a claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation proceeds to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(h). An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. §416.921(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impairments are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996) (citing Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153-54). "An impairment or combination of impairments can be found 'not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ability to work."' Id. (quoting SSR 85-28, available at 1985 WL 56856).

         If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d). If the claimant's impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; we also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. §416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related, physical and mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). "A 'regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule." SSR 96-8p, available at 1996 WL 374184.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his. or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(f). hi the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof is, for the first time, on the Commissioner.

         At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is conclusively found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet his burden at the fifth step. See id; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A reviewing court must affirm an ALJ's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Batson v. Comm'r for Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). '"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)).

         The court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id. (citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998)). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Id. (citing Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882); see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Moreover, the court may not rely upon its own independent findings of fact in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence of record. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947)). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of] more than one rational interpretation." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984)).

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD

         Born in September 1980, Matula was 30 years old on her alleged onset date of April 26, 2011. Tr. 91, 99-100, 112. Matula completed a GED program in 2010 and has no past relevant work experience. Tr. 88, 258, 736. On April 29, 2011, Matula filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. Tr. 216-26. She alleged disability in her initial application due to: bipolar disorder, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and a learning disability. Tr. 91, 99. After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Matula requested a hearing before an ALJ. Tr. 30, 91, 100.[1]

         I. The Medical Record

         Neither party supplied a summary of the medical record in this case. Other than generally asserting the post-hearing evidence she supplied undermines the ALJ's decision, Matula does not specifically challenge the ALJ's weighing of the medical evidence of record. Accordingly, after a careful review of the record and the ALJ's decision, the Court adopts the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence as supplemented by the Court's description of the post-hearing evidence submitted by Matula. See Tr. 36-43; see also infra at 8-14.

         II. The Administrative Hearing

         On April 16, 2014, the ALJ held a hearing, at which Matula testified and was represented by counsel; a vocational expert ("VE") also testified. Tr. 61-90.[2] The ALJ found that Matula did "not possess past relevant work experience" and asked the VE to:

assume an individual with the same age, education and work experience as [Matula] who is further limited to no more than frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling or climbing. Please assume this individual would also be limited to no more than occasional contact with the general public. Would such an individual be capable of. . . performing any other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national or regional economy?

Tr. 87-88. The VE answered in the affirmative and that such an individual would be able to perform the jobs of: sweeper/cleaner industrial; packager/hand; and office helper. Tr. 88.

         On May 15, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Matula not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 34-45. The decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on July 22, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied Manila's subsequent request for review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 1-4; see, e.g., Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000). Matula now appeals to this Court for review of the Commissioner's final decision. ECF No. 1.

         SUMMARY OF ALJ FINDINGS

         At step one of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Matula had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since ...


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