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JO G. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 20, 2018

LAURA JO G., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Laura Jo G. brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Benefits under the Social Security Act (“Act”). The Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.


         On September 11, 2003, plaintiff applied for Title II disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning April 1, 1997. Tr. 18, 147-48. Her application was denied initially on March 19, 2014, and upon reconsideration on June 17, 2014. Tr. 91-95, 99-101. On July 1, 2014, plaintiff filed a written request for hearing. Tr. 102-03. On March 16, 2016, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 37-63. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. At the hearing, plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to January 1, 2010. Tr. 18, 45-46.

         On April 12, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 18-34. On June 23, 2017, the Appeals council denied plaintiff's request for review. Tr. 1-5. On August 21, 2017, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court. Pl.'s Comp. at pp. 1-2 (doc. 1).


         Plaintiff was born on March 1, 1954. Tr. 147. According to the amended onset date, she was 55 years old on the alleged date of disability, and 62 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. She graduated from high school and completed two years of college. Tr. 39. She has worked as a graphic designer, a gallery salesperson, and an art instructor. Tr. 27, 57. Plaintiff alleges disability due to fibromyalgia/myofascial pain syndrome, chronic headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (“IBS”), sarcoidosis, and chronic fatigue. Tr. 18, 185.


         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] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). 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 plaintiff 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. § 404.1520. First, the Commissioner determines 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, she 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 number 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, she is not disabled; if she cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers 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.


         At step one of the sequential evaluation process outlined above, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following severe impairments: IBS; fibromyalgia/myofascial pain syndrome; headaches; and history of sarcoidosis. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ determined plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr.

         22. Because plaintiff did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected her ability to work. The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except:

[She can perform light work] with lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing and walking about six hours of an eight-hour workday and sitting about six hours of an eight-hour workday. A bathroom must be on premises.


         At step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a graphic designer, in gallery sales, and as an art instructor. Tr. 27. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was not disabled from January 1, 2010, through the date of the decision, April 12, 2016. Tr. 28.


         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred by: (1) rejecting her subjective symptom testimony; (2) failing to provide legally sufficient reasons to discount the opinions of Drs. Robert Bennet, Katherine Weller, and Rodney Schaffer, as well as chiropractor Laura Adams; and (3) failing to properly credit lay-witness testimony. Pl.'s Br. at pp. 2 (doc. 12).

         I. Plaintiff's Testimony

         At the March 2016 hearing, plaintiff indicated her primary symptoms preventing work include fatigue, IBS, headaches, fibromyalgia, sarcoidosis, and full-body pain. Tr. 45, 48-56. Plaintiff stated she cannot make it through the day without sleeping “for an hour or two, ” and she cannot sit or stand for long periods of time. Tr. 45. In addition, plaintiff indicated her IBS is painful, unpredictable, and “interferes with everything.” Tr. 48, 50. Plaintiff also complained of constant severe headaches and the inability to perform small repetitive motions due to her fibromyalgia. Tr. 52-53. Further, plaintiff testified she is vulnerable to acute illnesses due to her sarcoidosis. Tr. ...

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