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John G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

June 28, 2018

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

          JAMIEM. EVANS Evans & Evans, PC Of Attorney for plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney District of Oregon RENATA GOWIE Assistant United States Attorney

          LISA GOLDOFTAS Special Assistant United States Attorney Office of the General Counsel Of Attorneys for defendant.



         John G. ("plaintiff) seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on a careful review of the record, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on February 5, 2013, alleging disability as of February 28, 2002, due to traumatic brain injury ("TBI"); migraines; arthritis; shoulder, hip, neck, and back pain; problems with his knees and feet; throat problems; and blindness in his right eye. (Tr. 65-66.) His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 65, 79.) A hearing convened on February 9, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 36-64.) On March 24, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 15-28.) Plaintiff timely requested review of the ALJ's decision and, after the Appeals Council denied review, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-3.) Plaintiff subsequently filed a complaint in this court.

         Factual Background

         Born in April 1971, plaintiff was 30 years old on the alleged disability onset date and 44 years old on the hearing date. (Tr. 66.) Plaintiff attended school through the tenth grade. (Tr. 181.)

         Standard of Review

         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) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." 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, [a court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation 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 sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 42 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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).

         At step two, the Commissioner resolves 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). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step three, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals "one of a number of listed impairments that the Secretary acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." M; 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant still can perform "past relevant work." Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can work, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566.

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Tr. 17.) At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; hip osteoarthritis; loss of visual acuity in the right eye; and borderline intellectual functioning ("BIF"). Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of a number of impairments that are so severe ...

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