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West v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 15, 2018

MATHEW WEST, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul Papak United States Magistrate Judge

         Mathew West ("Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("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 Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for an immediate award of benefits.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate he 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(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. § 416.920(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 Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the 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. § 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments, See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(c), Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquiry is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996), citing Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153-54. "An impairment or combination of impairments can be found 'not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on an individual[']s ability to work.'" Id., quoting Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-28, 1985 SSR LEXIS 19(1985).

         If the 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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and the fourth steps 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. § 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 5.

         At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALT 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. § 416.9520(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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 shifts, for the first time, to the Commissioner, At the 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 a person with those characteristics and RFC could perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 CF.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate the existence in significant numbers in the national economy of jobs capable of being performed by a person with the RFC assessed by the ALJ between the third and fourth steps of the five-step process, the claimant is found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet that burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A reviewing court must affirm an ALJ's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her 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. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007), citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).

         The 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., quoting 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 Edhmd v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Moreover, the court may not rely upon its own independent findings of fact in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence of record. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003), citing SEC v. Chenety Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence maybe "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. 1984).

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD

         Plaintiff was born November 13, 1989, Tr. 31. Plaintiff graduated from high school with a 4.13 GPA. Tr. 282. His academic success was largely attributable to intensive management, supervision, and structure imposed by his parents. Tr. 280. After Plaintiff left home to attend his first year at the University of Oregon, he struggled academically and with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Tr. 282. Following a series of psychological and psychiatric evaluations, Plaintiff was eventually diagnosed with Asperger's disorder. Tr, 268. Doctors also diagnosed Plaintiff with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), anxiety, and social anxiety disorder, and depression. Tr. 283, 287, 293, 299, 311. Plaintiff took Celexa to manage depression and anxiety. Tr. 254. Plaintiff subsequently attended one year at Lane County Community College and then returned to his parents' home and completed an Associate of Arts ("AA") degree from Tillamook Bay Community College in May 2011. Tr, 33, 194.

         Plaintiff made several unsuccessful work attempts, including working at Einstein's Bagels and as a groundskeeper. Tr. 35-36, 49-50. Each of the jobs ended because Plaintiff was unable to maintain the focus and pace required to complete the work as needed. Id.

         Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI on October 12, 2012, alleging impairments of Asperger's, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder ("OCD"). Tr. 189, 193. Misapplication was denied initially and upon review. A hearing was held before an ALJ on January 8, 2015. Tr. 25-74. Plaintiff, his father ("Mr. West"), and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. Id. On June 26, 2015, the ALJ issued an opinion finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 8-20. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on October 13, 2016, making the ALJ's opinion the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-4. Plaintiff timely filed his request for district court review.

         SUMMARY OF ALJ FINDINGS

         At step-one of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 12, 2012, the application date. Tr, 13. Proceeding to step-two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of Asperger's syndrome, anxiety, and ADHD. Id.

         At step-three, the ALT found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any of the enumerated impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, Id., The ALJ therefore determined that Plaintiff retained the following RFC:

[C]laimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with some nonexertional limitations. He can perform simple tasks typical of occupations with a specific vocational preparation (SVP) rating of 1 or 2. He would work best in an environment that only involves simple work related decisions with few, if any workplace changes. He should not work in an environment that requires a fast pace task schedule. He can only have occasional, superficial and incidental interaction with others. He can work in proximity to coworkers, but would work best in an environment not requiring teamwork. He also needs a supervisor to meet with him once a week after he has learned required work tasks to remind him of the work tasks and how timely he needs to perform them.

Tr. 14-15.

         At step-four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr. 19. At step-five, based on the testimony of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform work as a yard worker, nursery worker, and warehouse worker, all jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 20.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ: (1) erroneously found Plaintiff capable of performing competitive employment; (2) erred by finding the VE's testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"); (3) failed to provide legally sufficient rationales for discrediting Plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony; (4) failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for discrediting lay witness testimony; (5) improperly evaluated medical opinion evidence; and (6) improperly discredited "other source" opinion evidence.

         I. RFC Formulation

         Plaintiff argues that the portion of the RFC requiring a supervisor to meet with Plaintiff once a week, after he has learned the job, to remind Plaintiff of the required work tasks and the timeliness with which he must perform them, is an impermissible "accommodation, " such as that contemplated under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Plaintiff argues that because the RFC requires special employer accommodation, Plaintiff is not capable of performing competitive employment as a matter of law.

         The Social Security Act and the ADA provide two different ways to help people with disabilities. See Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 801 (1999). While the Act provides monetaiy benefits to disabled individuals who are unable to engage in any kind of substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy, the ADA protects individuals from workplace discrimination based on disability. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 12112, 1382c(a)(3)(A); see Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 801.

         Briefly, the ADA prohibits a "covered entity" from discriminating against a "qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." 42 U.S.C. § 12112. Discrimination can include refusal to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, " unless the covered entity can show that providing such accommodation would "impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business." Id. A "qualified individual" is a person who, "with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. ยง12111. A "reasonable accommodation" is a "modification]] or adjustment[] to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under ...


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