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Leslie A. P. v. Commissioner Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

June 21, 2018

LESLIE A. P., [1] Plaintiff,
Commissioner of Social Security, [2] Defendant.


          Ann Aiken, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Leslie A. P. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff initially filed an application for benefits in January, 2009, alleging disability beginning January 1, 1993, which was denied initially on June 4, 2009, and upon reconsideration on June 18, 2010. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). That hearing was held on November 9, 2011, and the initial denial was upheld. The ALJ found that plaintiff was limited to sedentary work with the need to alternate sitting and standing as necessary. On May 2, 2013, plaintiff reapplied for SSI. She alleged disability beginning April 17, 2013, due to scoliosis of the spine, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, a possible borderline personality disorder, and depression. Plaintiffs second SSI application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an ALJ. A hearing was held on November 10, 2015. At the hearing, plaintiff was represented by an attorney, and a Vocation Expert ("VE') testified. On December 31, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claim for benefits. After the Appeals Council denied review, plaintiff filed the present complaint before this Court.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 740 F, 3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is subject to more than one interpretation but the Commissioner's decision is rational, the Commissioner must be affirmed, because "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edhind v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         The initial burden of proof rests upon plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, plaintiff 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[.]" 42U.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, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the application date, April 17, 2013. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments as of the alleged onset Dated: scoliosis of the spine secondary to fusion surgery in childhood, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and adjustment disorder. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), (c); id §§ 416.920(a)(4)(h), (c).

         At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not meet or equal "one of the listed impairments" that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), (d); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), (d).

         Before moving on to step four, the ALJ assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id § 416.920(e). The ALJ found that plaintiff could "perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(b), except that she can frequently climb ramps and stairs, and occasionally climb ladders and scaffolds; she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; she can never work at unprotected heights or be exposed to moving mechanical parts, and can occasionally be exposed to vibration; she is limited to performing simple routine tasks, and making simple work-related decisions; she is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and the public." Tr. at 21. At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. 20 C.F.R, §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), (f); id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), (f). At step five, however, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform work in the national economy; specifically, plaintiff could work as a garment sorter, photocopying machine operator, or laundry sorter. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g)(1).

         Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled and denied her applications for benefits.


         Plaintiff contends the ALJ committed reversible error at steps three and five in the five-step analysis. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to give preclusive effect to the prior ALJ's finding that plaintiff was limited to sedentary work with the need to alternate sitting and standing, in evaluating medical evidence, in evaluating lay witness testimony, in failing to develop the record regarding plaintiffs alleged cognitive limitations, in formulating the RFC, and in meeting her burden of proving that plaintiff retains the ability to perform work in the national economy.

         I. Preclusive Effect of Prior ALJ's Findings

         An ALJ's "findings concerning the claimant's residual functional capacity [...] are entitled to some res judicata consideration in subsequent proceedings". Chavez v. Brown, 844 F.2d 691, 694 (9th Cir. 1988). "[S]uch findings cannot be reconsidered by a subsequent judge absent new information not presented to the first judge". Stubbs-Danielson v. Astrtie, 539 F.3d 1169? 1173 (9th Cir. 2008).

         Plaintiff avers that the findings of the ALJ in her previous SSI application that she is limited to sedentary work with the need to alternate sitting and standing should be given preclusive effect to the findings of the ALJ in her current application for SSI, specifically the finding that plaintiff is capable of performing light work. Plaintiff argues that the failure of the current ALJ to discuss what effect, if any, res judicata should have on his findings means that the subsequent RFC analysis was fatally flawed. Plaintiff contends that, because of this failure, she should either be awarded ...

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