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Gia M. P. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 23, 2018

GIA M. P. Plaintiff,


          Malcolm F. Marsh, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff GiaM. P.[1] seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, the court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for an immediate payment of benefits.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for SSI on February 3, 2014. Plaintiff alleges disability beginning December 1, 2010, due to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), attention deficit disorder, migraine headaches, and sleep apnea. Tr. Soc. Sec. Admin. R. ("Tr.")65, ECFNo. 13. Plaintiff s claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ held a hearing on November 8, 2016, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expert, Todd Gendreau, also appeared at the hearing and testified. On December 16, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, and therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.

         Plaintiff was 46 years old on the alleged onset of disability date and was 52 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 65. Plaintiff has obtained a GED and has taken some community college classes. Tr. 49. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was working part- time as a courtesy clerk. Tr. 50. Plaintiff has no past relevant work, and has been employed as a bakery worker, construction cleaner, and care giver. Tr. 37, 77-78. Plaintiff has a history of polysubstance abuse and has been sober since 2011. Tr. 57, 59.


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether aperson is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy. Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: attention deficit disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder, and major depression. Tr. 20. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff s impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels with additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] can understand, remember, and carry out instructions, where she is limited to performing simple, routine tasks. Using judgment would be limited to making simple work-related decisions. Responding appropriately to supervisors, coworkers, and the public could only be done occasionally. Dealing with changes in a workplace setting should be limited to simple work-related decisions. Time off task would be able to be accommodated by normal breaks.

Tr. 23.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including such representative occupations as: hand packager, laborer, and kitchen helper. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act since February


         Plaintiff contends the following errors were committed: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated her subjective symptom testimony; (2) the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of her treating providers Elaine Mitchell, D.O., and Celeste Walker, QMHP; and (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated the lay testimony of Barbara P. and Shirley Hall. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error. Alternatively, the Commissioner contends that even if the ALJ erred, Plaintiff has not demonstrated harmful error.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159; (internal quotations omitted); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675; Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc, Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If the evidence supports the Commissioner's conclusion, the Commissioner must be affirmed; "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1010.


         I. The ALJ Erred in Discounting Plaintiffs Credibility

         To determine whether a claimant's testimony regarding subjective pain or symptoms is credible, an ALJ must perform two stages of analysis. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 678; 20 C.F.R. § 416.929. The first stage is a threshold test in which the claimant must produce objective medical evidence of an underlying impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 2008). At the second stage of the credibility analysis, absent affirmative evidence of malingering, the ALJ must provide clear and convincing reasons for discrediting the claimant's testimony regarding the severity of the symptoms. Carmickle v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1166 (9th Cir. 2008); Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th Cir. 2007).

         The ALJ must make findings that are sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony. Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163 (9th Cir. 2014); Brown-Hunter v. Colvin, 806 F.3d 487, 493 (9th Cir. 2015). Factors the ALJ may consider when making such credibility determinations include the objective medical evidence, the claimant's treatment history, the claimant's daily activities, and inconsistencies in testimony.[2] Ghanim, 763 F.3d at 1163; Tommasetti, 533 F.3d at 1039.

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified that she was 52 years old, and that she received a GED and took some college classes, but did not receive a degree. Plaintiff testified that she was working two days a week as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store, and had previously worked in the bakery department. Tr. 50-51. Plaintiff testified that she was having difficulty remembering temperatures and proofing in the bakery, so she switched to the courtesy department. Tr. 50. Plaintiff testified that she is absent from work due to stress. Tr. 51. Plaintiff stated that she is unable to work full time because she has difficulty making decisions and remembering things. Tr. 52. Plaintiff stated that she feels like she is always singled out. Tr. 52.

         Plaintiff testified that she takes a variety of medications for her depression and anxiety including ritalin, lexapro, gabapentin, klonopin, strattera, and viibryd. Tr. 53-54. Plaintiff described that when she is not working, she stays in the house and watches television. Tr. 54. Plaintiff is able to shop for groceries, but described it as maddening. Tr. 55. Plaintiff has a driver's license. Tr. 55.

         Plaintiff has a long history of drug and alcohol problems, and has remained sober since April 2011 by attending counseling and taking methadone. Tr. 57, 59. Plaintiff is on a physician-monitored ...

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