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Sean G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 14, 2018

SEAN G., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Sean G. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner") denying plaintiff Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq. For the following reasons, the Court should AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff protectively filed for SSI on May 31, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of November 26, 1980, his date of birth. Tr. 127.[2] His claim was denied initially on October 6, 2011, and on reconsideration on May 7, 2012. Tr. 49-61, 62-74. On June 27, 2012, plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on October 24, 2013, in Portland, Oregon, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dan R. Hyatt. Tr. 89, 35-48. Plaintiff testified, represented by counsel; a vocational expert ("VE"), Gary Jesky, also testified. Id. On December 6, 2013, ALJ Hyatt issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act and denying benefits. Tr. 15-29. Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review, which was denied January 31, 2015. Tr. 1-4, 10. Plaintiff then sought review before this District Court.

         On June 15, 2016, District Judge Anna J. Brown of this Court issued an Opinion and Order, holding that ALJ Hyatt erred in denying plaintiff benefits, and reversing and remanding the Commissioner's decision for further administrative proceedings, with specific instructions for the ALJ on remand. Tr. 797-817; No. 3:15-cv-00535-BR (Docket No. 20). Specifically, Judge Brown held that ALJ Hyatt erred at step five of the sequential five-step disability analysis in failing to limit plaintiff to jobs that required only one-to-two step instructions, due to the limitation to "simple, repetitive tasks" in the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") analysis and hypothetical question to the VE. Tr. 806-09. On July 19, 2016, pursuant to the Court's order, the Appeals Council issued a remand order to the ALJ. Tr. 820.[3]

         On remand, ALJ Robert F. Campbell held a hearing in Portland, Oregon on December 6, 2016, at which plaintiff testified, represented by counsel; VE Robert Gaffney also testified, as did plaintiffs mother, Julie M. F.. Tr. 735-765. On February 7, 2017, ALJ Campbell issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act and denying benefits. Tr. 711-727. Plaintiff again sought review before this Court.


         Plaintiff was born in 1980. Tr. 127. He has a community college degree in graphic design, and currently studies part-time at Portland State University, where he is working towards a degree in graphic design and participates in the fencing club. Tr. 42, 328, 492, 741, 745. Plaintiff began attending special education classes in elementary school, and continues to receive various educational accommodations. Tr. 157, 199, 360-61, 707, 855. Plaintiff previously worked part-time at a sporting goods store. Tr. 38-39, 148-49, 209. Plaintiff has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, cognitive disorder, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), panic disorder, developmental disorder (on the autism spectrum), and personality disorder (with dependent and avoidant features, and histrionic traits). Tr. 204-08, 237, 247, 328, 334-36, 397, 412, 443, 691. He has received mental health counseling on and off for multiple years, and has been prescribed multiple psychotropic medications. Tr. 205, 236, 243, 345, 389, 392-94, 443, 452, 750. Plaintiff lives alone, with a companion dog. Tr. 128, 173, 744.


         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) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." 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, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court "must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation"). "[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) (quotation 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 process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. 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), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines 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), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one "which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Id; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At the fourth step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform "past relevant work." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national ...

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