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Mullen v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 27, 2018

WILLIAM M.[1], Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Paul Papak United States Magistrate Judge

         William M. ("Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). This court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a claimant must demonstrate he 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 twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At the first four steps of the process, the burden of proof is on the claimant; only at the fifth and final step does the burden of proof shift to the Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b). Otherwise, the evaluation will proceed to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(h). An impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and is expected to persist for a period of twelve months or longer. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b); see also Bowen, 482 U.S, at 141. If the ALJ finds that the claimant's impairments are not severe or do not meet the duration requirement, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(m), 404.1520(c). Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquhy is a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims." Smolen v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996), citing Bowen, 482 U.S. at 153-54. "An impairment or combination of impairments can be found "not severe' only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality that has 'no more than a minimal effect on an individual[']s ability to work.'" Id., quoting Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-28, 1985 SSR LEXIS 19 (1985).

         If the claimant's impairments are severe, the evaluation will proceed to the third step, at which the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d). If the claimant's impairments are equivalent to one of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, the claimant will conclusively be found disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d).

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and the fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, [2] despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 5.

         At the fourth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowert, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If, in light of the claimant's RFC, the ALJ determines that the claimant can still perform his or her past relevant work, the claimant will be found not disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f). In the event the claimant is no longer capable of performing his or her past relevant work, the evaluation will proceed to the fifth and final step, at which the burden of proof shifts, for the first time, to the Commissioner.

         At the fifth step of the evaluation process, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether a person with those characteristics and RFC could perform any jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g). If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate the existence in significant numbers in the national economy of jobs capable of being performed by a person with the RFC assessed by the ALJ between the third and fourth steps of the five-step process, the claimant is found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g), 404, 1560(c), 404.1566. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet that burden at the fifth step. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A reviewing court must affirm an ALJ's decision if the ALJ applied proper legal standards and his or her findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C, § 405(g); see also Batson v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004), '"Substantial evidence' means more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable person might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007), citing Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006).

         The court must review the record as a whole, "weighing both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion." Id., quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998). The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See id., citing Robbins, 466 F.3d at 882; see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). Moreover, the court may not rely upon its own independent findings of fact in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence of record. See Connett v. Barnhart, 340 F.3d 871, 874 (9th Cir. 2003), citing SEC v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S, 194, 196 (1947). If the ALJ's interpretation of the evidence is rational, it is immaterial that the evidence may be "susceptible [of] more than one rational interpretation." Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989), citing Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1453 (9th Cir. 1984).

         SUMMARY OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD

         Plaintiff was born in March 1972. Tr. 199. Although Plaintiff was a half-credit short of completing high school and did not complete his GED, he completed two years of automotive technology training at a community college. Tr, 45, 204. He worked as an auto body repairman from 1994 until 2009, when he was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Tr. 47, 204. Plaintiff made two unsuccessful attempts to return to auto body repair work in 2011 and 2012. Tr. 54-55, 204.

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on April 16, 2013, alleging disability due to mid- to- low-back problems, right hip and right leg problems, right foot drop, and chronic pain. Tr. 173-74, 203. His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 96, 109. On July 20, 2015, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Tr. 41-57. During Plaintiffs testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff might have undocumented mental impairments and continued the hearing until after Plaintiff underwent a neuropsychological screening. Tr. 56. A second hearing was held on November 10, 2015. Tr. 58-73, Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. On November 25, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr, 20-40, The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on February 23, 2017, making the ALJ's opinion the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-7. Plaintiff timely filed his request for review by the district court.

         SUMMARY OF ALJ FINDINGS

         At step-one of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date of January 1, 2009[3] through the date last insured, June 30, 2013. Tr, 25. At step-two, the ALJ found that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, peroneal nerve injury, and cognitive disorder. Id.

         At step-three, the ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff s impairments met or equaled any of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Tr. 25-26. The ALJ therefore determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to ...


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