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Mason v. Beryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 23, 2018

SHANE THOMAS MASON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. McShane, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Shane Mason brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision denying his application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         In October 2012, Mason filed his application for DIB. In June 2013, he then filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). Later, in February 2015, he also filed an application for child's insurance benefits (“DAC”). After a hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied his application for DIB, determining that Mason was not disabled. The applications for SSI and DAC are not at issue before this Court. Because the Commissioner's decision is based on proper legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, it is AFFIRMED.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A reviewing court shall affirm the decision of an ALJ if their decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “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.'” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the district court must review the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the decision of the ALJ. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).

         DISCUSSION

         The Social Security Administration (“Administration”) utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. If the claimant satisfies his burden with respect to the first four steps, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner for step five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Mason was not disabled. He first determined that Mason last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on June 30, 2011, making the period at issue January 1, 2010 (the alleged onset date) through June 30, 2011 (the date last insured). Tr. 22-23.[1] At step one of the evaluation, the ALJ found that Mason engaged in substantial gainful activity from May 2010 through September 2010. Tr. 23. At step two, the ALJ determined that Mason had the following severe impairments: a bipolar disorder versus a mood disorder; alcohol dependence, in claimed remission; cannabis dependence, in claimed remission; and polysubstance abuse, in claimed remission. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Mason did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 24.

         Before moving to step four, the ALJ found that Mason had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: Mason could sustain concentration, persistence, and a pace for simple, routine, repetitive work and occasionally more complex work; he might have difficulty sustaining complex work on a consistent basis; he was limited to work which did not require work with the public on more than an occasional or infrequent basis and; he worked best in a predictable work environment. Tr. 25.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Mason was unable to perform past relevant work as a greenskeeper. Tr. 32. At step five, after considering Mason's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined that Mason was capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including as a janitor, commercial cleaner, and industrial cleaner. Tr. 33. Having made this determination, the ALJ concluded that during the period at issue Mason was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act and did not qualify for DIB. Id.

         Mason contends that the ALJ and other components of the Administration mishandled his claims, depriving him of due process. He also contends that the ALJ erred by (1) limiting review to only evidence dated during the period at issue, with regard to his DIB claim; (2) finding his five-month seasonal job for the Forest Service was substantial gainful activity; (3) finding he was not credible; (4) failing to give substantial weight to the opinions of treating and examining doctors and lay witness testimony and; (5) coming up with an inadequate RFC. The Court addresses each objection in turn.

         I. Management of Plaintiff's Claims and Due Process Concerns

         i. Consolidation of claims

         Mason first argues that the ALJ and the other components of the Administration deprived him of due process by mishandling his claims. Pl.'s Br. 6, Dkt. # 18. Prior to the administrative hearing, Mason's attorney asked the ALJ to consolidate his DIB and DAC applications. Tr. 254. Then, in the Administration's Notice of Hearing to Mason, the ALJ stated that the “hearing concerns your application of October 24, 2012, for a Period of Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits . . . the hearing also concerns your application of June 29, 2013, for Supplemental Security Income.” Tr. 130.

         However, at the hearing itself, the ALJ said that there was no SSI application pending nor was there a DAC claim before him. Tr. 43-44. In his decision, the ALJ stated that he declined to consider the SSI claim because (1) the SSI claim was escalated to the hearing level without his consent, (2) the Disability Determination Services determinations were based only on evidence through the date last insured, and (3) the Disability Determination Services psychological consultants did not consider evidence pertinent to the SSI claim. Tr. 20. The ALJ said that he declined to escalate the DAC claim to the hearing level because Disability Determination Services psychological consultants did not consider any evidence related to DAC claim. Tr. 21.

         Mason argues that once the ALJ learned, after the hearing, that the SSI and DAC claims were pending, the ALJ should have consulted with Mason before remanding both claims, and denying the DIB claim. Pl.'s Br. 7, Dkt. # 18.

         However, the Administration's rules do not require an ALJ to join pending claims, even where those claims share a common issue, e.g. sharing an overlapping period of time and having the same deciding issue. See SSI POMS DI 20101.025(C). This rule is simply permissive; an ALJ may, but is not required to, join claims that share a common issue. See SSI POMS DI 20101.025(C)(2). Because an ALJ ...


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