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Annis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 9, 2018

TERESA ANNIS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Tim Wilborn, Wilborn Law Office, P.C., Attorney for Plaintiff

          Billy Williams United States Attorney Renata Gowie Assistant United States Attorney

          Michael Howard Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Teresa Annis brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) provided clear and convincing reasons for discounting the uncontradicted opinion of Plaintiff's examining physician, Foy White-Chu, MD. If the ALJ's decision was in error, then the Court must also determine whether remand for further administrative proceedings or an immediate award of benefits is appropriate. Because the ALJ improperly discredited Dr. White-Chu's testimony that, when credited as true, would require awarding benefits, the Court reverses the Commissioner's final decision and remands this case for an immediate award of benefits.


         This case has an extraordinarily lengthy history. Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits on December 9, 2004. Tr. 73-75; 577-78. Plaintiff's applications were denied at the initial and reconsideration levels. Plaintiff's first administrative hearing was held before ALJ John J. Madden, Jr. on July 12, 2007. Tr. 1186. ALJ Madden issued a decision on August 22, 2007, finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 18-30. The Appeals Counsel declined to grant review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 9-11. Plaintiff then filed a civil action in the United Stated District Court for the District of Oregon on October 15, 2009. Upon the parties' stipulated motion for remand, United Stated District Court Judge Malcom Marsh remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. Tr. 668-71.

         On September 8, 2010, upon first remand, ALJ Madden issued a second decision once again finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 648-65. The Appeals Council declined to accept review of Plaintiff's case. Tr. 641-46. Plaintiff then filed her second civil action in the District of Oregon. Judge Marsh affirmed the ALJ's decision and Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Tr. 918. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case for further proceedings and directed the district court to instruct the ALJ to reconsider Dr. White-Chu's testimony. Tr. 921-921A.

         On June 14, 2016, upon second remand, ALJ John Michaelsen issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of her fifty-fifth birthday on November 28, 2011. Tr. 890. That decision made Plaintiff eligible for SSI benefits but not SSDI benefits because her insured status for DIB expired on December 31, 2010. Tr. 889-890. The Appeals Council denied review, rendering ALJ Michaelsen's decision final. Tr. 860-77. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.


         A claimant is disabled if she is unable 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). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         At the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets its burden and proves ...

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