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Stephen E. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

July 16, 2018

STEPHEN E., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          YOULEE YIM YOU UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Stephen E. (“plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with FRCP 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons discussed below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on October 18, 2012. Tr. 16. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 14, 2011. Id.; Tr. 149. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 16. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which took place before ALJ S. Andrew Grace on June 11, 2015. Id. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 37-60. On July 24, 2015, ALJ Grace issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 16-29. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council and was subsequently denied. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this court.

         BACKGROUND

         Born in 1951, plaintiff was 59 years old on the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 28. Plaintiff alleges disability due to hypogonadism; osteoarthritis; neuropathy; hernia; carpal tunnel syndrome; GERD; sleep apnea; peripheral neuropathy; shortness of breath; “seborric” dermatitis; spondylolisthesis; and benign prosthetic hyperplasia. Tr. 168. Plaintiff completed college and obtained a master's degree in microbiology. Tr. 39. Plaintiff worked as a project manager and the vice-president of a risk management company. Tr. 39-41.

         STANDARDS

         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). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         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, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1502 and 404.920. First, the Commissioner considers whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates 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 the claimant does not have a severe impairment, he is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a No. of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner.

         At step five, the Commissioner must demonstrate that the claimant can perform other work existing in significant No. in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 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 that plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, January 14, 2011. Tr. 18. Plaintiff earned $13, 432 performing contract work in the first quarter of 2013. Tr. 18. However, the ALJ noted that there were continuous 12-month periods during the adjudicatory period when plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity. Tr. 18.

         At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; sleep apnea; hip degenerative joint disease; knee osteoarthritis; degenerative disc disease; hernia status post repair; neuropathy; cardiomyopathy; and atrial fibrillation. Id. The ALJ found that plaintiff's GERD did not rise to the level of a severe impairment. Tr. 18-19.

         At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 19-21. Because plaintiff did not establish disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work during the relevant period. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work except:

[H]e should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or crawl. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, vibrations, pulmonary irritants, and hazards. He is limited to unskilled and semi-skilled work.

Tr. 21.

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 27.

         At step five, based on the testimony of the VE and other evidence, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could perform other work existing in significant No. in the national economy despite his impairments, including collections/loan application clerk and computation clerk. Tr. 28. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 29.

         DISCUSSION

         As a preliminary matter, plaintiff begins his opening brief seeking to amend his disability onset date to January 22, 2014. The court cannot consider plaintiff's request, as its review is restricted to the Commissioner's final decision, which used a disability onset date of January 14, 2011. See Klemm v. Astrue, 543 F.3d 1139, 1144 (9th Cir. 2008) (“[t]he Social Security Act grants to district courts jurisdiction to review only ‘final decisions' of the Commissioner”). Therefore, plaintiff's disability onset date remains January 14, 2011.

         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by improperly assessing: (1) subjective symptom testimony; (2) mental impairments under the RFC; (3) carpal tunnel syndrome at step two; and (4) ability to work at ...


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