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Lisa L. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

December 5, 2018

LISA L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN AIKEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Lisa L. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied plaintiffs application for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits on October 14, 2014. For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on October 2, 1967. She completed school through the 8th grade and previously worked as an accounts receivable clerk, billing clerk, and housecleaner, Plaintiff was five feet tall and weighed two hundred and sixty-seven pounds at the time of her application.

         On August 27, 2012, plaintiff filed for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). In her applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning June 2, 2003. She alleged that she was disabled by a combination of physical and mental impairments, including personality disorder, major depressive disorder, bi-polar disorder, chronic pain, hypertension, obesity, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, lumbar disc disease, irritable bowel syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, pedal edema, breast abscess, bell's palsy, obstructive sleep apnea, panic disorder, and dysthymic disorder.

         Her claims were denied initially on December 4, 2012. They were denied upon reconsideration on March 3, 2013. On May 1, 2013, plaintiff filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), An administrative hearing was held on September 8, 2014, where plaintiff was represented by counsel. Plaintiff and vocational expert ("VE") offered testimony. The ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision on October 14, 2014. The decision was appealed to the Appeals Council, and on March 1, 2016 the Appeals Council remanded the case for further deliberation under the new and material evidence provision of the regulations (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.970, 416.1470). After a supplemental hearing on September 21, 2016, the same ALJ issued a second unfavorable decision finding plaintiff not disabled under the Act on December 8, 2016. On February 9, 2017, Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review of the ALJ's second decision. On September 20, 2017, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, and the ALJ's decision was made final. Thereafter, plaintiff filed a timely complaint in this court.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it contains legal error or is not supported by substantial evidence," Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006)). Harmless legal errors are not grounds for reversal. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006) (citing Burch v. Bamhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005)). "Substantial evidence is 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," Gutierrez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. , 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The court must evaluate the complete record and weigh "both the evidence that supports and the evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion," Mayes v. Massanari, 276 F.3d 453, 459 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence is subject to more than one interpretation but the Commissioner's decision is rational, the Commissioner must be affirmed because "the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner." Edlundv. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).

         COMMISSIONER'S DECISION

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the plaintiff to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the plaintiff 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).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ is required to employ a five-step sequential analysis, determining: "(1) whether the claimant is 'doing substantial gainful activity'; (2) whether the claimant has a 'severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment' or combination of impairments that has lasted for more than 12 months; (3) whether the impairment 'meets or equals' one of the listings in the regulations; (4) whether, given the claimant's 'residual functional capacity,' the claimant can still do his or her 'past relevant work' and (5) whether the claimant 'can make an adjustment to other work.'" Molina v. Aslme, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)).

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged onset date of June 2, 2003. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had severe impairments of "a bipolar disorder with depression and anxiety; post-traumatic stress disorder[]; a personality disorder; a history of polysubstance abuse, in remission; sleep apnea; Bell's palsy; fibromyalgia; degenerative disc disease; venous stasis; urinary incontinence; obesity; migraine headaches; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease[.]" Tr. 20-21. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 21-23.

         The ALJ then assessed plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); § 416.920(e). The ALJ found that plaintiff

has the [RFC] to lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. She can sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday. She can stand and walk about four hours in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. She needs to alternate between sitting and standing about every hour but the change in position would be brief (less than five minutes) and she could remain at the workstation and remain productive. She needs a bathroom break for about five minutes every hour and work within 200 feet from a restroom facility. She should avoid concentrated exposure ...

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