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Wilcox v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

April 16, 2018

LORI C. WILCOX, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ALAN S. GRAF OF ATTORNEY FOR PLAINTIFF

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, RENATA GOWIE ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, MARTHA A. BODEN SPECIAL ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY OF ATTORNEYS FOR DEFENDANT

          OPINION AND ORDER

          John V. Acosta United States Magistrate Judge

         Lori C. Wilcox ("Wilcox") seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Social Security Commissioner ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("SSA"). This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on a careful review of the record, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

         Wilcox filed for DIB on May 19, 2013, alleging disability as of March 15, 2011, due to peripheral motor neuropathy; chronic myofascial pain syndrome of the neck and shoulders; chronic parascapular myofascial pain syndrome; upper extremity pain syndrome; upper extremity paresthesia; vascular/neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome; shoulder impingement syndrome; degenerative lumbrosacral spondylosis; cervical myalgia; degenerative arthritis of the sacroiliac joints. Tr. 200. Wilcox achieved sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2016. Tr. 16. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 16. A hearing was held on August 25, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"); Wilcox was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert ("VE"). Tr. 16. On November 30, 2015, ALJ Alex Karlin issued a decision finding Wilcox not disabled. Tr. 16-30. Wilcox requested timely review of the ALJ's decision and, after the Appeals Council denied her request for review, filed a complaint in this Court. Tr. 1-5.

         Factual Background

         Born in 1958, Wilcox was 52 years old on the disability onset date. Tr. 196. She completed high school. Tr. 41. She previously worked in orthodontic offices as an orthodontic assistant, appointment coordinator, and financial coordinator. Tr. 225.

         Standard of Review

         The 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. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant 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. §§ 404.1502 and 404.920. First, the Commissioner considers whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates 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). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either 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 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f) and 404.920(f). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner.

         At step five, the Commissioner must demonstrate that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566.

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found that Wilcox had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since ...


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