United States District Court, D. Oregon
Merrill Schneider, Schneider Kerr & Robichaux, Of
Attorneys for Plaintiff.
J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie,
Assistant United States Attorney, United States
Attorney's Office, Jordan D. Goddard, Special Assistant
United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social
Security Administration, Of Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
MICHAEL H. SIMON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
J. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”) denying her
application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). For the reasons discussed below, the
Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS
for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
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).
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
protectively filed for SSI on November 4, 2011. AR 254. In
her claim, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of
January 15, 2004. AR 252. Plaintiff alleged disability due to
anxiety; fibrosis; drug and alcohol problems; chronic pain;
and bipolar disorder. AR 257. Plaintiff was born on September
25, 1971, and she was 32 years old as of the alleged
disability onset date. AR 87. Plaintiff is currently 47 years
claim was denied initially on February 9, 2012, and upon
reconsideration on August 8, 2012. Plaintiff's first
hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) occurred on June 4, 2014, but was
continued to allow Plaintiff to seek legal representation and
for development of the record. AR 68-73. Plaintiff appeared
before a new ALJ (“the ALJ”) with the assistance
of counsel on July 23, 2015. On September 22, 2015, the ALJ
found Plaintiff not disabled and not entitled to SSI under
the Social Security Act. AR 30.
then appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council
and submitted an updated disability report. AR 311-318. The
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on
September 13, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Plaintiff subsequently
filed a complaint in district court on November 16, 2017,
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final
decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI.
The Sequential Analysis
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
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).
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.
The ALJ's Decision
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not participated in
substantial gainful activity since November 4, 2011. AR 22.
At step two, the ALJ found the following severe medical
impairments, which more than minimally affect Plaintiff's
ability to work: left thumb carpometacarpal degenerative
joint disease; left great toe degenerative joint disease; and
substance abuse in remission. Id. The ALJ also
concluded that Plaintiff's anxiety did not cause more
than minimal limitation to the Plaintiff's ability to
perform basic work activities and thus was non-severe. AR 23.
three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have any
impairment or combination of impairments that meets the
severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §
404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 24. The ALJ gave particular
attention to Listing 1.02, major dysfunction of a joint, but
concluded that Plaintiff's injuries did not satisfy the
requirements for this listing. AR 24.
then evaluated Plaintiff's RFC, and found that Plaintiff
had an RFC as follows:
[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work . . . including the ability to do the
following. She can never climb ladders. She can occasionally
climb stairs. She can frequently stoop, kneel, crouch and
crawl. She can frequently handle. She can perform work that
involves few workplace changes.
four, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's RFC, testimony from
the vocational expert (“VE”), and the mental and
physical demands of Plaintiff's past relevant work as a
home attendant. AR 28. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's
RFC precluded performance of Plaintiff's past relevant
five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's RFC, age, education,
work experience, and the VE's testimony to determine that
jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that Plaintiff could perform. AR 28-29. These jobs included
work as a cashier, housekeeper, and small products assembler.
AR 29. The ALJ also asked the VE what jobs would be
available if someone with Plaintiff's characteristics
were limited to sedentary work, rather than light work; the
VE testified that work would be available as a charge account
clerk, document preparer, and final assembler. Id.
Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not been
disabled as that term is defined under the Social Security
Act since November 4, 2011, the date of her application.
contends that the ALJ erred in the following general ...