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Margaret H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

July 9, 2018

MARGARET H.,[1] Plaintiff,


          Ann Aiken United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Margaret H. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed and this case is dismissed.


         On January 15, 2013, plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of January 1, 2004. Plaintiff was fifty-four years old on the alleged disability onset date. She completed some college coursework and previously worked as a senior foster caregiver. Plaintiffs impairments include post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") and dysthymia. The agency denied both the DIB and the SSI claims initially and again upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing and the ALJ subsequently denied plaintiffs claims for benefits on February 25, 2016. Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing decision, which the Appeals Council denied on March 28, 2017. Plaintiff now seeks review of the ALJ's decision in this Court.


         The district court reviews the Commissioner's final decision under the substantial evidence standard; the decision will be disturbed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("[F]indings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]"); Smokn v. Chafer, 80 F.3d 1273, 1279 (9th Cir. 1996); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Webb v. Barhart, 433 F.3d 683, 686 (9th Cir. 2005). "Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance." Smolen, 80 F.3d at 1279 (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) and Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975)) (internal 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." Edlvnd 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[.]" 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also id, § l382c(a)(3)(A) (substantially identical standard for SSI).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 3owen v. Ymkert, 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 that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date on January 1, 2004. At step two, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: PTSD and dysthymia. However, the ALJ found that the record failed to establish any severe, medically determinable impairment existing between January 1, 2004, the alleged onset date, and June 30, 2009, the date last insured, as relevant to plaintiffs DIB application. The ALJ therefore denied plaintiffs DIB claim at step two.

         Proceeding with the analysis for plaintiffs SSI claim, at step three, the ALJ determined 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. Tr. 19. The ALJ next assessed the a residual functional capacity ("RFC") and found that plaintiff is able to

[P]erform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is limited to simple, routine tasks consistent with unskilled work as defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The claimant is limited to simple work-related decisions. The claimant is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, but frequent interaction with coworkers and the public.

Tr. 21. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff has no past relevant work because she has not earned at "substantial gainful activity" levels since 2001. Tr. 26. At step five, the ALJ found that plaintiff retained the ability to perform the representative jobs of dietary aid, laundry worker II, and garment sorter. Therefore, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not been under a disability from January 1, 2004, the alleged disability onset date, through February 25, 2016, the date of the ALJ's unfavorable decision.


         On appeal, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by (1) disposing of plaintiff s DIB claim at step two of the sequential analysis, (2) failing to provide specific, clear, and convincing reasons supported by substantial evidence to discredit plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony, and (3) failing to adequately account for all of plaintiff s mental limitations in the formulation of the RFC and hypotheticals posed to the vocational expert, resulting in an error at step five of the sequential analysis.

         I. The ALJ erred at step hvo

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ's step two finding was not supported by substantial evidence. A claimant is not disabled unless he or she has a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, significantly limiting his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the ALJ finds no severe impairments at step two, the disability claim will be denied. If, however, the claimant has at least one severe impairment, the ALJ then proceeds to step three. A claimant's impairment (or combination of impairments) is not severe if it does not significantly limit his or her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities (i.e., the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs). Id. ยงยง 404.1521, 416.921. To satisfy his or her burden at step two, the ...

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