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Latasha H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

January 31, 2019

LATASHA H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          AIKEN, DISTRICT JUDGE:

         Latasha H. ("Plaintiff) 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 ("SSI") on June 16, 2016. After Plaintiff filed her opening brief, the Commissioner moved for an order remanding the case for further proceedings. Plaintiff replied, arguing that the case should be remanded for an award of benefits. For the reasons that follow, the Court REVERSES and REMANDS for an immediate award of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for SSI on February 21, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of February 21, 2009. Following denials at the initial and reconsideration levels, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and issued an unfavorable decision on June 21, 2016. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on July 10, 2017. Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court on September 11, 2017 seeking review of the ALJ's decision.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides for judicial review of the Social Security Administration's disability determinations: "The court shall have power to enter ... a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." In reviewing the ALJ's findings, district courts act in an appellate capacity not as the trier of fact. Fair v. Bowen, 885 F, 2d 597, 604 (9th Cir. 1989). The district court must affirm the ALJ's decision unless it contains legal error or lacks substantial evidentiary support. Garrison v, Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014) (citing Stout v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec, 454 F, 3d 1050, 1052 (9th Cir. 2006)). Harmless legal errors are not grounds for reversal. Burch v. Barnhart, 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 complete record must be evaluated and the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion must be weighed. 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." Edlund v. 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.5" Molina v. Astrue, 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 her application date. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe limitations: "anxiety/post-traumatic stress disorder; history of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); history of drug and alcohol abuse; and mild intellectual development disorder (20 CFR 416.920(c))." Tr. 29. 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.

         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 perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she would be limited to no more than occasional handling, fingering and feeling with her left hand. She would also need to avoid exposure to fumes, dust, gases, poor ventilation and other noxious odors. She would be limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks, requiring no more than occasional interaction with the public, and no more than brief, superficial interaction with coworkers.

Tr. 30. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience. At step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC and found that there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including bakery ...


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