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Allen R. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 23, 2018

ALLEN R., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Honorable Paul Papak, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Allen R. ("Plaintiff) filed this action on June 19, 2017, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision finding him not disabled and therefore, denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). This court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"): (1) failed to give clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiffs testimony; (2) failed to properly reject the lay testimony of Plaintiffs neighbor and Plaintiffs fianc6; (3) improperly determined that Plaintiffs carpal tunnel syndrome and borderline intellectual functioning were not severe impairments; (4) erroneously formulated a residual functional capacity ("RFC") that was not supported by substantial evidence; and (5) improperly crafted the hypothetical to the vocational expert ("VE"). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's final decision is reversed and remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS FRAMEWORK

         To establish disability within the meaning of the Act, a 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 claimant has made the requisite demonstration. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999).

         At the first step, an ALJ considers the claimant's work activity, if any. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b). Otherwise, the evaluation proceeds to the second step.

         At the second step, the ALJ considers the medical severity of the claimant's impairments. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 140-41; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). 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. § 416.920(c). The ability to perform basic work activities is defined as "the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs." 20 C.F.R. § 416.921(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 also2O C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). Nevertheless, it is well established that "the step-two inquiry 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 SSR 85-28, available at 1985 WL 56856).

         If the 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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(ii!), 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d).

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's RFC, based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's case record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related, physical and mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). "A 'regular and continuing basis' means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule." SSR 96-8p, available at 1996 WL 374184.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's past relevant work. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 141; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(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. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(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 is, for the first time, on the Commissioner.

         At the fifth step, the ALJ considers the RFC in relation to the claimant's age, education, and work experience to determine whether the claimant can 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. 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. If the Commissioner meets her burden to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of performing jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is conclusively found not to be disabled. See Bowen, 482 U.S. at 142;see also2O C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g), 416.960(c), 416.966. A claimant will be found entitled to benefits if the Commissioner fails to meet his burden at the fifth step. See id; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.920(g).

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A 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 for 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. 2006).

         The 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., citing 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), 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).

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1963, Tr. 167. Plaintiff dropped out of high school during ninth grade and subsequently obtained his GED after four attempts. Tr. 505-06. Prior to his claimed disability onset date of July 2, 2009, Plaintiff had past relevant work experience as a carpenter. Tr. 18, 73.

         Plaintiff has been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic cervicalgia, arthritis of the neck, posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), antisocial personality disorder, alcohol dependence, and severe bipolar disorder. Tr. 375, 389, 407, 428, 434, 440, 508. Plaintiff experiences PTSD resulting from an accident in which his step-father ran over Plaintiffs three year old daughter with a lawn mower, leaving her crippled. Tr. 503, 508. This caused Plaintiff to develop significant social problems. Tr. 504. After that incident, he began to have trouble holding down a job because he could not "deal with people anymore." Id. He explained that he has been fired from numerous jobs because he could not get along with his co-workers. Tr. 223. Examining physician, Dr. Reynolds concluded that Plaintiffs "emotional problems interfere with reliable and predictable social functioning." Tr. 509.

         Although not formally diagnosed with borderline intellectual functioning, Dr. Boyd indicated that Plaintiffs low IQ scores were "solidly" in the borderline intellectual functioning range. Tr, 226. Notably, he cannot remember his own phone number or home address and he has been unable to learn how to use email or "search for things on the internet." Tr. 285-86. Qualified Mental Health Practitioner ("QMHP") Karen Nielson noted that Plaintiff has poor insight into problems, limited attention span, and limited intellectual functioning. Tr. 409. Dr. Reynolds noted a "high probability" that Plaintiff would have difficulty functioning if he lived independently.

         In 1990, Plaintiff underwent a cervical spine surgery. Tr. 422. After a failed attempt to hang himself in July 2014, he began to experience "worsening neck pain and numbness and tingling in his hand and fingers," Id. In 2015, he reported weakness and dropping things with his hands. Tr. 422. Dr. Cheung diagnosed carpal tunnel syndrome and recommended "surgical decompression for the right carpal tunnel." Tr. 428.

         SUMMARY OF ALJ FINDINGS

         At the first step of the five-step sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 17, 2014, the date of the application. Tr. 12.

         At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, polysubstance abuse, a personality disorder, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. Tr. 12.

         At the third step, the ALJ found that none of Plaintiffs impairments was the equivalent of any of the impairments enumerated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Tr. 13. The ALJ therefore conducted an assessment of Plaintiffs RFC. Specifically, the ALJ found that:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(b). Specifically, he [] can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; he can stand and/or walk for six hours out of a[n] eight-hour workday with regular breaks; he can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks, [He] is further limited to no more than frequent climbing, and no more than occasional stooping or crouching. [Plaintiff] is limited to no more than occasional overhead reaching bilaterally, and to no more than [] frequent grasping, hand[l]ing and fingering on the right. [He] is also limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks requiring no more than occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers, and no more than brief, superficial interaction with the general public.

Tr. 14. In reaching this finding, the ALJ considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. Tr. 14-18. The ALJ also considered opinion evidence. Id.

         At the fourth step of the five-step process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform ...


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