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Sara L. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

January 8, 2019

SARA L.,[1] Plaintiff,

          OPINION & ORDER


         Plaintiff Sara L. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on September 19, 2013. She alleged disability beginning January 1, 2010. Her application was denied initially and upon review. Plaintiff appeared before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") at a hearing held February 22, 2016. On May 4, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. On August 21, 2017, the Appeals Council declined plaintiff s request for review, making the ALJ decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The present appeal followed.


         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Berry v. Astme, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231 (9th Cir. 2010). "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 quotation marks omitted). The court must 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." Edhmd v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).


         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 sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); id. § 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ found that although plaintiff had engaged in "substantial gainful activity" ("SGA") for portions of 2014, there had been a "continuous 12-month period during which [plaintiff] did not engage in SGA." Tr. 22-23; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.152O(a)(4)(i), (b); id. § 4l6.92O(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff suffers from "affective disorder, which is characterized as bipolar disorder, and depressive disorder and anxiety disorder[.]" Tr. 23; see also 20 C.F.R. § 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(ii), (c); id. § 4l6.92O(a)(4)(ii), (c).

         At step three, the ALJ determined plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in combination, did not meet or equal "one of the listed impairments" that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. Tr. 23; see also 20 C.F.R. § 4O4, l52O(a)(4)(iii), (d); id. § 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii), (d). As relevant in this appeal regarding plaintiffs mental disorders, the ALJ found that the "evidence did not. . . suggest that a slight increase in mental demands or change in environment would probably result in decompensation."[3]Tr. 24.

         The ALJ then found plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: [Plaintiff] is capable of understanding, remembering and carrying out simple, repetitive tasks involving no more than occasional contact with the public and coworkers. [She] is limited to simple work-related decisions. [She] is limited to occasional interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public.

Tr. 25; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e); id. § 416.920(e).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff had no past relevant work. Tr, 29; see also 20 C.F.R. § 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), (f); id. § 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iv). At step five, the ALJ found plaintiff could perform the jobs of janitor, cook's helper, or warehouse worker. Tr. 30; see also 20 C.F.R. § 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v), (g)(1); id. ยง ...

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