United States District Court, D. Oregon
DION W. H., Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.
A. Baron and Kathryn Tassinari, Harder Wells Baron &
Manning, PC, of Attorneys for Plaintiff.
J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie,
Assistant United States Attorney, Lisa Goldoftas, Special
Assistant United States Attorney, of Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Michael H. Simon, District Judge
Dion W. H. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“Commissioner”) denying his application for
disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title
II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons discussed, the
decision of the Commissioner is reversed and remanded for
district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if
it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings
are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501
(9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means
“more than a mere scintilla but less than a
preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.
1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53
F.3d at 1039).
the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational
interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be
upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th
Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are
insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a
rational reading of the record, and this Court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See
Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190,
1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must
consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm
simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting
evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630
(9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation
marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm
the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did
not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at
applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on February 2,
2010, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2008. AR
138-44. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and
on reconsideration, AR 89-98, and a hearing was held before
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mary Kay
Rauenzahn on September 14, 2012, AR 50. The ALJ denied
Plaintiff's claim on October 4, 2012. AR 20-43, and the
Appeals Council denied review, AR 1-7.
filed a Complaint in federal court and, on July 16, 2015,
based on a stipulation of the parties, United States District
Judge Michael J. McShane reversed the ALJ's decision and
remanded the case for further proceedings. AR 1105-07. ALJ
Rauenzahn conducted a hearing on remand on May 6, 2016. AR
1051. On June 9, 2016, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim
for benefits. AR 1023-49. The Appeals Council again denied
review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of
the agency. On January 16, 2017, Plaintiff initiated this
action seeking review of the ALJ's decision. ECF 1.
The Sequential Analysis
claimant is disabled if he or she 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 12 months[.]” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). “Social Security Regulations set out a
five-step sequential process for determining whether an
applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920
(SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential
process asks the following series of questions:
1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful
activity?” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i),
416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant
mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay
or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the
claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within
the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not
performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis
proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe”
under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An
impairment or combination of impairments is
“severe” if it significantly limits the
claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a).
Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have
lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at
least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If
the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis
ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii),
416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment,
the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or
equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the
claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment
does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments,
the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate
medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine
the claimant's “residual functional capacity”
(“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related
activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular
and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his
or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e),
404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ
determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant
work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot
perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds
to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and
work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment
to other work that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v),
404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such
work, he or she is disabled. Id.
See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954
(9th Cir. 2001).
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four.
Id. at 953; see also Tackett v.
Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999);
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears
the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d
at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the
claimant can perform other work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy, “taking into
consideration the claimant's residual functional
capacity, age, education, and work experience.”
Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1566, 416.966 (describing “work which exists in the
national economy”). If the Commissioner fails to meet
this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the
Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform
other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante,
262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.
The ALJ's Decision
One, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not engage in
substantial gainful activity during the period between his
alleged onset date of January 1, 2008 and his date last
insured of December 31, 2011. AR 1029. At Step Two, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments:
cervical spondylosis; gout; chronic pain; degenerative joint
disease of the left wrist; degenerative joint disease of the
left knee; hypertension; cyclothymic disorder; post-traumatic
stress disorder (“PTSD”); personality disorder;
and alcohol dependence. AR 1030. At Step Three, the ALJ found
that Plaintiff, through his date last insured, did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR
then determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). The ALJ concluded:
[T]hrough the date last insured, the claimant had the
residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined
in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). Moreover, the claimant can lift and/or
carry 25 pounds occasionally, and 10 pounds frequently. The
claimant can sit for six hours, and stand for six, in an
eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. The claimant can
understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine
instructions that can be learned in 30 days or less. The
claimant should do isolated work with no public contact,
occasional coworker contact with no group tasks, and
occasional supervisor contact. The claimant can occasionally
reach overhead bilaterally. The claimant can never climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but he can occasionally climb
stairs and ramps, stoop, and crouch. The claimant can never
kneel or crawl. The claimant must avoid workplace hazards,
such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. The
claimant's work must allow for most lifting to be
performed with his dominant right upper extremity, with the
left non-dominant ...