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Steele v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

January 18, 2018

RAYMOND LEROY STEELE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Martin R. Cohen Attorney for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams, U.S. Attorney Renata Gowie, Asst. U.S. Attorney

          Sarah Martin Special Asst. U.S. Attorney Office of the General Counsel Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendants

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN JELDERKS U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Raymond Steele brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act (the Act). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed his application for a period of disability and DIB on January 23, 2013, alleging disability as of November 15, 2012. The Commissioner denied his application initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). An administrative hearing was held on November 25, 2014, before ALJ Vadim Mozyrsky. In a decision dated March 26, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on July 14, 2016, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff now appeals to this Court for review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         Factual Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1954 and was 60 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. He completed two years of college and attended vocational rehabilitation training. He is a military veteran and has past relevant work as a structural steel inspector and quality control technician.

         Disability Analysis

         The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The five step sequential inquiry is summarized below, as described in Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Step One. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is engaged in such activity is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under Step Two. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Step Two. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant has one or more severe impairments. A claimant who does not have any such impairment is not disabled. If the claimant has one or more severe impairment(s), the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under Step Three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         Step Three. Disability cannot be based solely on a severe impairment; therefore, the Commissioner next determines whether the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. A claimant who has an impairment that meets a listing is presumed disabled under the Act. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal an impairment listed in the listings, the Commissioner's evaluation of the claimant's case proceeds under Step Four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         Step Four. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to perform work he or she has done in the past. A claimant who can perform past relevant work is not disabled. If the claimant demonstrates he or she cannot do past relevant work, the Commissioner's evaluation of claimant's case proceeds under Step Five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         Step Five. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work. A claimant who cannot perform other work is disabled. If the Commissioner finds claimant is able to do other work, the Commissioner must show that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that claimant is able to do. The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. If the Commissioner demonstrates that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant is able to do, the claimant is not disabled. If the Commissioner does not meet the burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         At Steps One through Four of the sequential inquiry, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show the claimant can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

         ALJ's Decision

         As an initial matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2017.

         At the first step of his disability analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 15, 2012, the alleged onset date.

         At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: hearing loss, tinnitus, asthma, osteoarthritis, and degenerative disc disease.

         At the third step, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment set out in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526.

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). He found Plaintiff retained the functional capacity to:

perform medium work . . . except the claimant can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally and frequently handle bilaterally. He can occasionally climb ladders and scaffolds, kneel, crouch and crawl. He can frequently balance and stoop. He should have no more than concentrated exposure to airborne irritants, such as gases, fumes and odors. The claimant is limited to work environments with a moderate noise level.

         Tr. 20. In making his determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of his symptoms were not entirely credible.

         At the fourth step of the disability analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform ...


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