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Athena S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 21, 2018

ATHENA S., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          Merrill Schneider Schneider Kerr & Robichaux Attorney for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams United States Attorney Renata Gowie Assistant United States Attorney

          Martha A. Boden Special Assistant United States Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). Because the ALJ failed to evaluate the medical opinion of a treating physician, Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on July 13, 1958 and was fifty years old on December 31, 2008, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 20, 181.[2] Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“SSA” or “Act”) on September 30, 2012. Tr. 22. Plaintiff has some college education and past relevant work experience as a receptionist, claims service representative, and telemarketer. Tr. 29, 235. Plaintiff claims she is disabled based on: degenerative disease in her spine and joints; musculoskeletal conditions; tendinopathy; seizure disorder; vertigo; and depression. Tr. 22, 325, 352, 358. Plaintiff's benefits application was denied initially on December 16, 2013, and upon reconsideration on May 14, 2014. Tr. 20, 110-15, 130-32. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Vadim Mozyrks on February 8, 2016. Tr. 35-80. ALJ Mozyrsk issued a written decision on March 30, 2016, finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 20-30. The Appeals Council declined review, rendering ALJ Mozyrsk's decision the Commissioner's final decision that Plaintiff now challenges in this Court. Tr. 1-6.

         Notably, Plaintiff's separate claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) was granted by the Commissioner. Tr. 116-129. The Commissioner determined that, as of August 2013, Plaintiff was disabled and entitled to benefits. Tr. 116. The central issue here is whether the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period: December 31, 2008, through September 30, 2012.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         At the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines 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), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's impairments, 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 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets its burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 22.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, bilateral knee degenerative joint disease, left upper extremity tendinopathy and degenerative joint disease, seizure disorder, and obesity.” Id. The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's depression was not severe. Tr. 22-24.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 24. Particularly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's condition did not meet the requirements of Listing 11.03 for non-convulsive epilepsy. Id.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following exceptions:

She could lift and carry, and push and pull, up to ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. She could sit up to six hours in an eight-hour day. She could stand and walk up to two hours total in an eight-hour day. She could occasionally reach overhead with the left upper extremity. She could occasionally, climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She could never work around unprotected heights, around heavy operating machinery or operate motor vehicles as part of her day-to-day job. She also could never work around extreme cold conditions.

Tr. 24.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a receptionist, claims service representative, and telemarketer. Tr. 29. Accordingly, the ALJ did not proceed to step five and concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 29-30.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence means 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.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts consider the record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id.; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed.” Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also ...


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