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Elliott v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

February 28, 2018

JOHN GORDON ELLIOT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Ann Aiken, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff John Gordon Elliot brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs applications for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED AND REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         In January 2013, plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI, alleging disability due to a psychotic disorder beginning on November 25, 2013. His claim was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. On May 4, 2015, plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") and testified. Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing. In a written decision issued June 3, 2015, the ALJ found the plaintiff not disabled. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, this complaint followed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A federal court "shall have the power to enter a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for rehearing." 42 U.S.C. 405(g) (ellipses omitted); see Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1019 (9th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted).

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th. Cir. 1989). "Substantial evidence" means "more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance, " Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec, Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (quotation marks omitted)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart. 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir, 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Baison v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).

         COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         The initial burden of proof rests upon plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, plaintiff 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 person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckerf, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the application date of January 14, 2013. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments as of the alleged onset Dated: psychotic disorder not otherwise specified and cannabis abuse in claimed remission. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(H), (c). At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not 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), (d); id §§416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC").

         The ALJ found plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He could sustain concentration, persistence, an pace fro only simple, routine, repetitive tasks, one-to two-steps in nature. He would not be able to sustain work of a more complex nature. He can have no public contact. He would work best working alone, not as part of a team. He should avoid exposure ...

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