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Jill C. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

December 3, 2018

JILL C., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          George J. Wall, Of Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie, Assistant United States Attorney, Alexis L. Toma, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the General Counsel, Of Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MICHAEL H. SIMON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[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) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff, Jill C., filed an application for DIB and SSI on February 6, 2014, alleging disability beginning on July 15, 2012. AR 19, 66-67, 192-201. She was 41 years old at the alleged disability onset date and is currently 48 years old. Plaintiff alleged disability due to a seizure disorder, memory loss, degenerative arthritis, left shoulder pain, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and bipolar disorder. AR 66-67. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and upon reconsideration. AR 82, 148. After these decisions, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 155-57. On May 27, 2016, ALJ S. Andrew Grace found Plaintiff not disabled. AR 16-18. Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied the request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1-4. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of that decision.

         B. The Sequential Analysis

         A claimant is disabled if he or 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). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe” under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Id.; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing “work which exists in the national economy”). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Social Security Act for purposes of DIB, with a date last insured of December 31, 2018. The ALJ then applied the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff may have engaged in substantial gainful activity for a period in 2012 and 2013 while working for Marshalls retail store, but the dates of employment were unclear. The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in any other substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date, July 15, 2012. AR 21.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, cognitive disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder not otherwise specified, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), seizure disorder, degenerative illness of the knees, and post left shoulder dislocation with calcific tendonitis. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one of the specific impairments listed in the regulations. AR 22. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform sedentary work, except that she should avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. AR 23. The ALJ also included the following limitations in Plaintiff's RFC: she can occasionally climb, use foot controls, and reach overhead; she can never climb ladders or scaffolds; she is limited to simple, routine tasks and low-stress work; she is limited to occasional contact with the public and coworkers; and, she can perform work at an ordinary pace but not a production rate pace. AR 23-24.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Finally, at step five, the ALJ determined that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. AR 30. Based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing the requirements of representative occupations such as an electronics worker or semi-conductor worker. For these reasons, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (A) improperly discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony based on non-compliance with treatment; and (B) improperly weighing the opinions of treating physicians and mental health ...


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