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Ellis v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 20, 2018

BRENDA KAY ELLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MERRILL SCHNEIDER, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney RENATA GOWIE Assistant United States Attorney, MICHAEL W. PILE Acting Regional Chief Counsel MICHAEL S. HOWARD Special Assistant United States Attorney Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANNA J. BROWN United States Senior District Judge.

         Plaintiff Brenda Kay Ellis seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) in which she denied Plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Benefits (DIB) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court REVERSES the decision of the Commissioner, REMANDS for further consideration, and DISMISSES this matter.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         Plaintiff previously filed for SSI benefits on November 30, 2010, and alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2000. Tr. 87.[1] Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 87. A prior Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on October 11, 2012. Tr. 41-58. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing. On November 16, 2012, the prior ALJ issued an opinion in which he found Plaintiff was not disabled and, therefore, was not entitled to benefits. Tr. 87-96. Plaintiff did not appeal that decision, which then became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 18.

         On February 12, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed the current application for benefits in which she alleges a disability onset date of December 31, 2000. Tr. 18. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. An ALJ held a hearing on October 28, 2015. Tr. 59-83. Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney at the hearing. On May 1, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion in which he found Plaintiff is not disabled and, therefore, is not entitled to benefits. Tr. 18-35. On July 6, 2015, Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 14. On November 9, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision, and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-4. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On January 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's May 1, 2015, final decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on September 13, 1966. Tr. 34. Plaintiff was forty-eight years old at the time of the hearing. Plaintiff has limited education. Tr. 34. The ALJ found Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work experience. Tr. 34.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to depression, enlarged lymph nodes, cysts in the fatty tissue behind her heart, bronchitis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, insomnia, Castleman's disease, and high cholesterol. Tr. 111.

         Except as noted, Plaintiff does not challenge the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence. After carefully reviewing the medical records, this Court adopts the ALJ's summary of the medical evidence. See Tr. 21-34.

         STANDARDS

         The initial burden of proof rests on the claimant to establish disability. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012). To meet this burden a claimant must demonstrate her inability “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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 must develop the record when there is ambiguous evidence or when the record is inadequate to allow for proper evaluation of the evidence. McLeod v. Astrue, 640 F.3d 881, 885 (9th Cir. 2011)(quoting Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459-60 (9th Cir. 2001)).

         The district 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 as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See also Brewes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 682 F.3d 1157, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Molina, 674 F.3d. at 1110-11 (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009)). It is more than a mere scintilla [of evidence] but less than a preponderance. Id. (citing Valentine, 574 F.3d at 690).

         The ALJ is responsible for evaluating a claimant's testimony, resolving conflicts in the medical evidence, and resolving ambiguities. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). The court must weigh all of the evidence whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008). Even when the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the Commissioner's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record. Ludwig v. Astrue, 681 F.3d 1047, 1051 (9th Cir. 2012). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Widmark v. Barnhart, 454 F.3d 1063, 1070 (9th Cir. 2006).

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). See also Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Each step is potentially dispositive.

         At Step One the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(I). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         At Step Two the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant does not have any medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. Stout v. Comm'r Soc. Sec Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006). See also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         At Step Three the Commissioner must determine whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments and are so severe that they preclude substantial gainful activity. The claimant is disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724. The criteria for the listed impairments, known as Listings, are enumerated in 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 1 (Listed Impairments).

         If the Commissioner proceeds beyond Step Three, she must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). The claimant's RFC is an assessment of the sustained, work-related physical and mental activities the claimant can still do on a regular and continuing basis despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). See also Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. “A 'regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent schedule." SSR 96-8p, at *1. In other words, the Social Security Act does not require complete incapacity to be disabled. Taylor v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 659 F.3d 1228, 1234-35 (9th Cir. 2011)(citing Fair v. Bowen, 885 F.2d 597, 603 (9th Cir. 1989)). The assessment of a claimant's RFC is at the heart of Steps Four and Five of the sequential analysis when the ALJ is determining whether a claimant can still work despite severe medical impairments. An improper evaluation of the claimant's ability to perform specific work-related functions "could make the difference between a finding of 'disabled' and 'not disabled.'" SSR 96-8p, at *4.

         At Step Four the claimant is not disabled if the Commissioner determines the claimant retains the RFC to perform work she has done in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724.

         If the Commissioner reaches Step Five, she must determine whether the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). See also Keyser, 648 F.3d at 724-25. Here the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Lockwood v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010). The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a VE or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines set forth in the regulations at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, appendix 2. If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ found the presumption of continuing nondisability as a result of the adjudication of Plaintiff's prior November 30, 2010, application was rebutted by the submission of new and material evidence. The ALJ, however, concluded the record ...


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