United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION & ORDER
Annah James on behalf of David Lang seeks judicial review of
the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision
denying Lang's application for disability insurance
benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social
Security Act (the "Act"). This court has
jurisdiction over plaintiffs action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). All parties have
consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders
and judgment in this case in accordance with FRCP 73 and 28
U.S.C. § 636(c). Docket No. 14. The Court has considered
all of the parties' briefs and all of the evidence in the
administrative record. For the reasons set forth below, the
Commissioner's final decision is REVERSED and REMANDED
for an i mmediate payment of benefits.
establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a
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 claimant has made the requisite
demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137,
140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the
burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and
final step does the burden of proof shift to the
Commissioner. See Tackeit v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094,
1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
first step, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See
Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant
is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will
be found not « disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S.
at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b). Otherwise, the evaluation
will proceed to the second step.
second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the
claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at
140-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h).
An impairment is "severe" if it significantly
limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work
activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve
months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at
141; see also 20 CF.R. §
404.1520(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is
defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do
most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1522(b); see also
Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141. If the ALJ finds that the
claimant's impairments are not severe or do not meet the
duration requirement, the claimant will be found not
disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h),
claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will
proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines
whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal
"one of a number of listed impairments that the
[Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity, " Bowen, 482 U.S.
at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)
(4)(iii), 404.1520(d). If the claimant's impairments are
equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R,
§ 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, the claimant will conclusively
be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141;
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the
enumerated impairments, the ALJ is required to assess the
claimant's residual functional capacity
("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and
other evidence in the claimant's case record.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The RFC is an
estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained,
work-related, physical and mental activities on a regular and
continuing basis,  despite the limitations imposed by the
claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at
fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the
RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work.
See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the
claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can
still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant
will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at
141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f). In the event the claimant is
no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant
work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final
step, at which the burden of proof is, for the first time, on
fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the
RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and
work experience to determine whether the claimant can perform
any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566. If the Commissioner meets
its burden to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of
performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy, the claimant is conclusively found not to
be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566. A claimant will be found
entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet his
burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at
142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c), 404.1566.
reviewing court must affirm an ALJ's decision if the ALJ
applied proper legal standards and his findings are supported
by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C.
§ .405(g); see also Batson v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).
"'Substantial evidence' means more than a mere
scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant
evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Asirue,
504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Robbins v.
Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)).
court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both
the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts
from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id.
(citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th
Cir. 1998)). The court may not substitute its judgment for
that of the Commissioner. See Id. (citing
Robbins, 466 F, 3d at 882); see also Edlund v.
Massanari, 253 F, 3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the
ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is
immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of]
more than one rational interpretation." Magallanes
v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989) (citing
Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F, 2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir.
1952, Lang was 58 years old on the amended alleged disability
onset date of January 1, 2011, and 62 years old at the time
of the hearing. Tr. 40-41, 205. He graduated from high school and
had past relevant work experience as a shamanic practitioner.
Tr, 49, 292. On January 30, 2013, Lang applied for DIB,
originally alleging a disability onset date of January 1,
2009. Tr. 274, He alleged disability due to fibromyalgia,
diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, back injuries, glaucoma,
degenerative back disease, scoliosis, trigeminal neuralgia,
and sleep apnea. Tr.291.
application for DIB was denied initially and on
reconsideration, and on December 26, 2013, he requested a
hearing before an ALJ. Tr. 113-16, 120-24. On October 8,
2015, a hearing was conducted before ALJ Robert Spaulding; at
which Lang, his counsel, and Mark Mann, a Vocational Expert
("VE"), were present. Tr. 33-87. At the hearing,
Lang amended his alleged onset date to January 1, 2011. Tr.
40. On November 4, 2015, the ALJ denied Lang's
application for DIB, Tr. 16-27, and Lang timely requested
review of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 11. On February 17,
2017, the Appeals Council issued a decision finding Lang not
disabled under the Act, although for a different reason than
the ALJ provided in his decision. Tr. 1-7. Consequently, the
Appeals Council's decision, including the portions of the
ALJ's findings adopted by the Appeals Council, became the
Administration's final order for purposes of judicial
review. See 20 C.F.R. § 422.210(a); see
also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000). This
OF THE COMMISSIONER'S FINDINGS
first step of the five-step sequential evaluation process,
the ALJ found Lang did not engage in substantial gainful
activity at any time during the period from the amended
alleged onset date of January 1, 2011, through the date of
the hearing. Tr. 18.
second step, the ALJ found Lang had the following severe
impairments: chronic pain syndrome, diabetes mellitus, and
diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Id. The ALJ found
Lang's upper lumbar and lumbosacral spondylosis, sleep
apnea, and depression were not severe impairments.
Id. The ALJ also found Lang's fibromyalgia was
not diagnosed "in a proper manner to be valid." Tr.
third step, the ALJ found that none of Lang's impairments
was the equivalent of any of the impairments enumerated in 20
C.F.R. § 404, Subpt P, App. 1. Tr. 20. The ALJ therefore
conducted an assessment of Lang's RFC. Specifically, the
ALJ found that Lang had the RFC to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), with the following
additional limitations: "[T]he claimant is able to
occasionally climb ramps and stairs but no climbing ladders
or scaffolds; is able to frequently balance and stoop; is
able to occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl; and should
have only occasional exposure to hazards such as unprotected
heights and moving mechanical parts." Tr. 20-26. In
reaching this finding, the ALJ stated that he considered all