United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
Honorable Paul Papak United States Magistrate Judge
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.
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).
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, 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).
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).
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,  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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
OF ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD
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.
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
OF ALJ FINDINGS
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,
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.
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