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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

May 29, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          TIM WILBORN Of Attorney for plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney District of Oregon RENATA GOWIE Assistant United States Attorney, ALEXIS L. TOMA Special Assistant United States Attorney Of Attorneys for defendant



         Benjamin M. Smith ("plaintiff) seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 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 this case is remanded for payment of benefits.

         Procedural Background

          Plaintiff applied for DIB on October 8, 2015, alleging disability as of November 1, 2013, due to posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), traumatic brain injury ("TBI"), cervical degenerative joint and disc disease, low back strain, bilateral knee patellofemoral syndrome, and right upper extremity radiculopathy. (Tr. 77-78.) His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 77, 93.) A hearing convened on May 13, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 47-76.) On September 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 27-39.) Plaintiff timely requested review of the AL J's decision and, after the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. (Tr. 1-3.)

         Factual Background

          Born on March 2, 1980, plaintiff was 33 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 3 6 years old on the date of the hearing. (Tr. 77, 93.) Plaintiff is a high school graduate and attended two years of college, completing an associate's degree in auto mechanics. (Tr. 204.)

         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). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [a court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         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, 42 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity;" if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         At step two, the Commissioner resolves 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 not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals "one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Id; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is 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 still can perform "past relevant work." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Id., at 142; 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, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (Tr. 29.) At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mild TBI; PTSD; mild lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease; mild bilateral knee osteoarthritis; migraines; obesity; a somatic symptom disorder; depression; and right shoulder dislocation. Id., At step three, the ALJ found that the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of a number of impairments that are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 30.)

         Accordingly, the ALJ continued the sequential evaluation process to determine how plaintiffs medical limitations affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved that plaintiff had the following residual functional capacity ("RFC"):

[He can] perform light work . . . except he can lift 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently . .. sit, stand and/or walk for six hours in an eight-hour day . . . occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds . . . occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, but never crawl... occasionally reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities . . . must avoid concentrated exposure to noise greater than SCODOT level III . . . must avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations and workplace hazards . . . can understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that can be learned in 30 days or less ... can tolerate no public contact. .. can tolerate only occasional incidental coworker contact with no group tasks . . ...

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