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Austin v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

February 15, 2018

EVAN R. AUSTIN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert E. Jones United States District Judge.

         JONES, District Judge, Plaintiff Evan Austin appeals the Commissioner's decision denying his concurrent applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). IAFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.


         Austin alleged disability beginning April 2, 2009, due to pain in the back, degenerative disc disease and hearing problems. Admin. R. 23, 268, 277, 313, 341. He satisfied the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2014. Admin. R. 224. He must establish that he became disabled on or before that date to prevail on his Title II claim. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A). Tidwell v. Apfel, 161 F.3d 599, 601 (9th Cir. 1998).

         An ALJ applied the sequential disability determination process described in 20 C.F.R. sections 404.1520 and 416.920. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). That ALJ issued an adverse decision, but the Appeals Council remanded with instructions to obtain additional evidence and conduct further proceedings. Admin. R. 158-177.

         On remand, a second ALJ also applied the correct regulatory disability determination process. The ALJ found Austin's ability to perform basic work activities adversely affected by degenerative disc disease in the lumbar region of the spine, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post left carpal tunnel release, and left ulnar neuropathy status post left ulnar nerve transposition. Admin. R. 26. The ALJ found that, despite these impairments, Austin retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with the option to sit or stand, limited climbing and postural activities such as stooping, crouching, and so forth, limited handling and fingering, and no concentrated exposure to workplace hazards. Admin. R. 27.

         The vocational expert ("VE") testified that a person having Austin's age, education, work experience, and RFC could perform his past relevant work of garage supervisor as that occupation is generally performed in the national economy. Admin. R. 32, 62. The VE testified that a person with Austin's vocational factors and RFC could also perform the activities required in light, unskilled occupations such as bagger, table worker, hand packager, greeter, gate guard, and parking lot cashier, which represent over two million jobs in the national economy. Admin. R. 33, 63-65. The ALJ concluded that Austin was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Admin. R. 34.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006). Under this standard, the court must consider the record as a whole, and uphold the Commissioner's factual findings that are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence, even if another interpretation is also rational. Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; Batson v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 3 59 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 -40 (9th Cir. 1995).


         The plaintiff bears the burden of showing that the ALJ erred and that any error was harmful. McLeod v. Astrue, 640 F.3d 881, 886-87 (9th Cir. 2011). Austin contends the ALJ improperly discounted his subjective symptoms, the medical opinions of Anthony Francis, M.D., and Mason Harrison, F.N.P., and the lay witness statement of his son, Kamryn Larsen. As a result, Austin contends, the ALJ's RFC assessment did not accurately reflect all of his functional limitations. This caused the ALJ to elicit testimony from the VE based on hypothetical assumptions that did not accurately reflect his limitations. Austin also contends the ALJ improperly classified his past relevant work.


         I. Subjective Symptoms

         Initially, Austin alleged disability due to back problems, hearing problems, and degenerative disc disease. Admin. R. 313. He described his back problems as lower back pain and numbness which made it difficult for him to stand, walk, or sit for extended periods without changing positions every hour or less. Admin. R. 50, 53, 89-91, 95, 341. Austin also alleged limitations from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and neuropathy in the left elbow, for which he underwent surgical carpal tunnel release and ulnar nerve transposition on the left side. Admin. R. 50, 91. Austin said he could not squeeze or pick up anything with his left hand and could not lift anything larger than a soup can. Admin. R. 50, 54. If he tried to lift a gallon of milk, the ...

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