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Johnson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

November 13, 2018

RONALD J., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Ronald J. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). The Commissioner partially denied plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq., 1381 et seq. The Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS for further administrative proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB on March 28, 2014, and for SSI on August 11, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of September 8, 2013. Tr. 22, 165, 167.[2] These claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 22, 65-72, 75-89, 90-104. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was held on March 15, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) S. Pines. Tr. 40-63. Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, represented by counsel; a vocational expert (“VE”), Robert Gaffney, also testified. Id. On April 26, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding that plaintiff was under a disability as defined by the Act from September 8, 2013, through July 27, 2015. Tr. 29-30. However, the ALJ found that beginning on July 28, 2015, plaintiff's disability ended due to medical improvement. Tr. 31. Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review, which was denied July 31, 2017. Tr. 1-6. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court.[3]

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1959 and completed high school. Tr. 29, 46, 65. He suffers from shingles, post-herpetic neuralgia nerve pain, polyneuropathy, tinnitus, spinal disorder, and depression. Tr. 65, 75, 222, 286. Plaintiff previously worked as an industrial and service salesmen, sales engineer, and account representative. Tr. 203-07.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         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) (quotation 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). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant 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 process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 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). A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform “past relevant work.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), (f), 416.920(e), (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ first made findings regarding plaintiff's disability claim from September 3, 2013, through July 27, 2015. Tr. 26-30. The ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. Tr. 26. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had these following severe impairments: post-herpetic neuralgia, spinal disorder, and depressive disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or equaled a listed impairment. Id. The ALJ found that, during the time period at issue, plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with various physical limitations, and that plaintiff “was likely to be on task less than eighty percent of the workday.” Tr. 26-27. At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 29. At step five, the ALJ found that from September 8, 2013, through July 27, 2015, and considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, no jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff was under a disability as defined by the Act from September 8, 2013, through July 27, 2015. Tr. 30.

         The ALJ next found that medical improvement occurred as of July 28, 2015. Tr. 31. The ALJ compared plaintiff's prior RFC and found that plaintiff's functional capacity for basic work activities had increased. Id. The ALJ found that, beginning on July 28, 2015, plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with essentially the same physical limitations, but without the limitation that plaintiff would be off task 20% of the workday. Id. The ALJ found, beginning July 28, 2015, that plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a sales representative. Tr. 32-33. The ALJ also made an alternative finding that, “considering [plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and RFC, [plaintiff had] acquired work skills from past relevant work that [were] transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.” Tr. 33. Finally, the ALJ applied Medical-Vocational Rule 202.07, 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, Rule 202.07, which directed a finding of “not disabled, ” and so the ALJ found that plaintiff's disability ended as of July 28, 2015. Tr. 33-34.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding medical improvement, specifically, that the ALJ (1) failed to base his finding of medical improvement on “symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings”; (2) improperly rejected plaintiff's treating neurologist's opinion for the period after the ALJ's finding ...


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