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Raymond L. P. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 24, 2018

RAYMOND L. P., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Raymond L. P. brings this action for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for further proceedings.


         On April 15, 2014, plaintiff applied for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2014. Tr. 20, 245.[2] His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 20, 156, 169. On June 9, 2016, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 20, 46. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 20, 46-87. On September 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 17-45. On August 15, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review. Tr. 1-5. On October 6, 2017, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court.


         Plaintiff was born on January 6, 1970. Tr. 245. He was 44 years old on the alleged date of disability and 46 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision. Id. He left school in the ninth grade and never obtained a high school diploma or equivalent degree. Tr. 54, 267. He worked as a forklift driver and “lead man” from 1997-2012. Tr. 55-56, 267-68. Plaintiff alleges disability due to sleep apnea, chronic depression and anxiety, carpal tunnel syndrome, diabetes, and chronic pain. Tr. 266, 272.


         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, he 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, he is not disabled; if he 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. Tr. 23. At step two, the ALJ determined plaintiff had the following severe impairments: abdominal disorder, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, spine disorder, obesity, affective disorder, and anxiety disorder. 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. 24.

         Because plaintiff did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiff's impairments affected his ability to work. The ALJ determined that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) except he was limited to:

[f]requent climbing of ramps and stairs, kneeling and crouching; occasional climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds, stooping and crawling; frequent handling bilaterally; less than occasional exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation, and pulmonary irritants, and also to hazards, such as moving mechanical parts and unprotected heights; limited to performing simple and routine tasks; limited to simple, ...

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