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Patricia T. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 25, 2018

PATRICIA T., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [2] Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          MICHAEL MCSHANE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Patricia T. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) finding Plaintiff no longer disabled. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 2, 2009, Plaintiff was found to be disabled as of January 11, 2008. Tr. 18. On February 11, 2013, the Commissioner determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of February 1, 2013. Id. The determination was upheld upon reconsideration and Plaintiff sought a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. On December 10, 2015, Plaintiff appeared at a video conference hearing before an ALJ. Id.

         On January 29, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of February 1, 2013. Tr. 30. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1, making the ALJ's determination the final decision of the Commissioner. This appeal followed.

         CONTINUING DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         Regulations governing the handling of social security benefit determinations identify two separate standards: one to be employed in making an initial disability determination, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, and the second for assessing whether a previously determined disability continues, 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(i-vii). Khampunbuan v. Astrue, 333 Fed.Appx. 217, 218 (9th Cir. 2009). In assessing whether a disability continues, the Commissioner follows a seven-step sequential analysis.

         A step one, the Commissioner must determine if the individual has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a listed impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(i). If the claimant has such an impairment, her disability continues. Id.

         At step two, the Commissioner must determine whether medical improvement has occurred. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(ii). If there has been medical improvement, the analysis proceeds to the third step; if not, the analysis skips to the fourth step. Id.

         If there has been medical improvement, the third step requires the Commissioner to determine whether medical improvement is related to the ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(iii). This involves assessing whether the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) has increased. Id. If the medical improvement is not related to the ability to do work, the analysis proceeds to step four; if it is related to the ability to do work, it proceeds to step five. Id.

         If there is no medical improvement, or the improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to do work, the fourth step requires the Commissioner to determine if an exception applies. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(iv). Under the first group of exceptions, the Commissioner can find the claimant no longer disabled even though she has not medically improved if she is able to engage in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(3). If one of those exceptions applies, the analysis proceeds to step five. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(iv). Under the second group of exceptions, in certain situations not applicable here, the Commissioner can find a recipient no longer disabled without finding medical improvement or an ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(4). If none of the exceptions apply, the recipient continues to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(iv).

         The fifth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether all the recipient's current impairments in combination are “severe, ” which means they significantly limit the claimant's ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(v). If not, the claimant is no longer disabled. Id.

         If the claimant's current impairments are severe, the sixth step requires the Commissioner to determine whether the claimant has a sufficient RFC, “based on all [her] current impairments, ” to perform any past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(vi). If so, she is no longer disabled. Id.

         If the claimant is unable to do her past work, the seventh step requires the Commissioner to determine, using the claimant's RFC, whether the claimant can perform any other substantial gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(vii). If not, the claimant continues to be disabled. Id.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ noted the most recent favorable medical decision finding Plaintiff disabled, dated January 2, 2009, which served as the “comparison point decision.” (“CPD”). Tr. 19. At the time of the CPD, Plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairment: third ventricular colloid cyst with obstructive hydrocephalus. Id. This resulted in an RFC restricting Plaintiff to occasional and frequent lifting and carrying of less than ten pounds; standing or walking for less than two hours in an eight hour workday; sitting for six hours in an eight hour workday; never climbing ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; never balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; avoiding all exposures to extreme cold, extreme heat, or hazards; avoiding even moderate exposure to noise; and avoiding concentrated exposure to wetness or humidity. Tr. 19-20.

         Plaintiff underwent a series of surgeries to remove the colloidal cyst and install a ventriculoperitoneal shunt. Tr. 20. The ALJ determined that, as of February 1, 2013, Plaintiff had the following current medically determinable impairments: residual effects of colloidal cyst and obstructive hydrocephalus (status post-excision and subsequent ventriculoperitoneal shunt placement); cognitive disorder; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. Id.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following additional restrictions: Plaintiff is limited to occasional climbing of ramps or stairs; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing; frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; Plaintiff must avoid moderate exposure to operational control of moving machinery, unprotected heights, and hazardous machinery; Plaintiff is limited to work that is simple, routine, and repetitive; and no more than occasional interaction with the general public or coworkers. Tr. 23.

         The ALJ then undertook the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ determined that medical improvement had occurred as of February 1, 2013, and that the impairment established in the CPD was no longer present. Tr. 22. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's medical improvement was related to Plaintiff's ability to work. Id. Consequently, the ALJ skipped step four and proceeded to step five, determining that Plaintiff has continued to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments. Tr. 22-23.

         The ALJ determined at step six that Plaintiff did not have the RFC to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 28-29. At step seven, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform other substantial gainful work as a mailroom sorter, light package router, or office helper. Tr. 29-30. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's disability ended on February 1, 2013. Tr. 30.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “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 quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the Commissioner's alleged errors, this court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d ...


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