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Dion W.H. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 11, 2018

DION W. H., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          Robert A. Baron and Kathryn Tassinari, Harder Wells Baron & Manning, PC, of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy 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

         Plaintiff 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 further proceedings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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).

         Where 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 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         B. The Sequential Analysis

         A 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 step four.
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).

         The 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.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         At Step 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 1031.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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