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David S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

January 2, 2019

DAVID S., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Patricia Sullivan, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff David S. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his applications for child's insurance benefits (“CIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”). (Docket No. 1). This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 6). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this case is DISMISSED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for CIB in January 2015 and an application for SSI in February 2015. Tr. 15, 259-60, 261-66.[2] He alleged an onset date for both applications of September 1, 2005. Id. His applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id.; see also Tr. 74-83, 84-93, 107-118, 119-30, 131-42. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on May 11, 2017. Tr. 43-70, 184-85. On August 29, 2017, an ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 15-27. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 25, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Born in 1989, plaintiff was 16 years old on his alleged onset date and 27 years old on the date of his hearing. Tr. 74, 49. He completed high school, as well as some college coursework, and has past work experience as an automotive detailer, fleet truck washer, and parking lot maintenance worker. Tr. 49, 288. He alleged disability due to major depressive disorder and dysthymia. Tr. 287.

         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).

         As relevant here, an applicant qualifies for CIB if he “is under a disability which began prior to age 22, and was dependent on the insured at the time of the insured's death.” Astrue v. Capato ex rel. B. N.C. , 566 U.S. 541, 547 (2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 402(d)(1)).

         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 the fourth step, 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

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not attained the age of 22 and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had had the following severe impairments: depression, anxiety, and substance abuse and addiction disorder. Tr. 18.

         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 plaintiff had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but was limited to “no more than frequent interactive contact with the public.” Tr. 19. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing his past relevant work as a street sweeper. Tr. 25. In the alternative, the ALJ made a step five finding that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, other jobs existed in the national such that plaintiff could sustain employment despite his impairments. Tr. 26. Specifically, the ALJ found plaintiff was capable of performing the jobs of battery stacker, lumber sorter, and hand packager. Id.; see also Tr. 65. The ALJ thus found plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 27.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting his subjective symptom testimony; (2) improperly weighing the medical opinion evidence of record; (3) failing to provide germane reasons for rejecting the lay witness testimony of his father; (4) omitting a coworker and supervisor limitation in his RFC; and (5) concluding plaintiff was capable of past relevant work at step four.

         I. Subjective Symptom Testimony

         When a claimant has medically documented impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the symptoms complained of, and the record contains no affirmative evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of . . . symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). A general assertion that the claimant is not credible is insufficient; the ALJ must “state which . . . testimony is not credible and what evidence suggests the complaints are not credible.” Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). The reasons proffered must be “sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony.” Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal citation omitted). If the “ALJ's credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the court] may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

         Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p clarified that ALJs are not tasked with “examining an individual's character” or propensity for truthfulness, and instead must assess whether the claimant's subjective symptom statements are consistent with the record as a whole. See SSR 16-3p, available at 2017 WL 5180304 (Oct. 25, 2017). If the ALJ's subjective symptom analysis “is supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the court] may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas, 278 F.3d at 959 (citation omitted).

         At the hearing, plaintiff testified that his inability to interact with coworkers and follow instructions would preclude him from returning to work. Tr. 53. He further explained that a “major panic attack” caused him to cancel a scheduled job interview. Tr. 55. Plaintiff testified that in 2014 he “was having suicidal thoughts multiple times a day, ” but that a combination of therapy and medication “made the most difference.” Tr. 58. He testified that his depression affected his energy and motivation levels as well as his ability to concentrate and focus. Tr. 59. Finally, his anxiety made social interaction difficult, and ...


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