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Swanson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

February 28, 2018

NANCY M. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant,


          Ann Aiken, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Penta Leslie Swanson brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         On May 13, 2013, plaintiff applied for SSI. She alleged disability beginning December 1, 2009, due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD"), Major Depressive Disorder with suicidal ideation and a history of multiple suicide attempts, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Plaintiffs SSI application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). A hearing was held on January 13, 2015. At the hearing, plaintiff was represented by an attorney, and a Vocation Expert ("VE') testified. On February 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claim for benefits. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed the present complaint in this Court.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is subject to more than one interpretation but the Commissioner's decision is rational, the Commissioner must be affirmed, because "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         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. Yuckert, 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, May 13, 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: PTSD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); id. §§416.920(a)(4)(ii), (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 moving on to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id. § 416.920(e). The ALJ found that plaintiff could "perform a full range of work at all extertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: [.., ] simple instructions [...] few, if any, workplace changes [...] occasional and indirect contact with coworkers and the general public." Tr. at 26. At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f); id. §§416.920(a)(4)(iv), (f). At step five, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform work in the national economy; specifically, plaintiff could work as a library helper, photo finisher, or office checker. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v)} (g)(1).

         Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied her applications for benefits.


         Plaintiff contends the ALJ committed reversible error at three places in the five-step analysis. First, plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred in formulating the RFC with regard to limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace. Plaintiff also avers that the ALJ erred in discounting certain medical opinion evidence. Finally, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in discounting her symptom testimony.

         I. RFC ANALYSIS

         The RFC is the most a person can do, despite his or her physical or mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945. In formulating the RFC, the ALJ must consider all medically determinable impairments, including those that are not "severe, " and evaluate "all of the relevant medical and other evidence, " including the claimant's testimony, Id.; SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184. In determining a claimant's RFC, the ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in the medical testimony and translating the claimant's impairments into concrete functional limitations in the RFC. Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrue,539 F.3d 1169, 1174 (9th Cir. 2008). Only limitations supported by substantial ...

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