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Sandra L. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

February 7, 2019

SANDRA L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          Merrill Schneider Attorney for Plaintiff

          Billy J. Williams, U.S. Attorney Renata Gowie, Asst. U.S. Attorney OR Ryan Ta Lu Special Asst. U.S. Attorney Attorneys for Defendants

          OPINION AND ORDER

          John Jelderks U.S. Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) seeking judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the Commissioner) denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under the Social Security Act (the Act). Plaintiff requests the Court remand this action to the Social Security Administration (the Agency) for an award of benefits.

         For the reasons set out below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and this action is remanded for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

          Plaintiff filed applications for SSI benefits and a period of disability and DIB on June 28, 2012, alleging she had been disabled since May 3, 2011. After her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing.

         On October 3, 2014, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Cecilia LaCara. Plaintiff and William Weiss, an impartial vocational expert (VE), testified at the hearing. Plaintiff was represented by counsel.

         In a decision dated January 7, 2015, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

         On July 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. In the present action, Plaintiff challenges that decision.

         Background

          Plaintiff was born in 1961 and was 53 years old at the time of ALJ LaCara's decision. Plaintiff graduated from college, has a Master's Degree in Social Work and has past relevant work experience as a clinical supervisor, child advocate social service director, and family support social worker.

         Disability Analysis

          The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Below is a summary of the five steps, which also are described in Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Step One. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (SGA). A claimant engaged in such activity is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under Step Two. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Step Two. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant has one or more severe impairments. A claimant who does not have such an impairment is not disabled. If the claimant has a severe impairment, the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under Step Three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         Step Three. Disability cannot be based solely on a severe impairment; therefore, the Commissioner next determines whether the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. A claimant who has such an impairment is disabled. If the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations, the Commissioner's evaluation of the claimant's case proceeds under Step Four. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         Step Four. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to perform relevant work he or she has done in the past. A claimant who can perform past relevant work is not disabled. If the claimant demonstrates he or she cannot do work performed in the past, the Commissioner's evaluation of the claimant's case proceeds under Step Five. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f).

         Step Five. The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work. A claimant who cannot perform other work is disabled. If the Commissioner finds that the claimant is able to do other work, the Commissioner must show that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can do. The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a vocational expert (VE) or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. If the Commissioner demonstrates that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can do, the claimant is not disabled. If the Commissioner does not meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         At Steps One through Four, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. At Step Five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Id.

         ALJ's Decision

         As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016.

         At Step One, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 3, 2011, the alleged onset date.

         At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairment of osteoarthritis.

         At Step Three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled a presumptively disabling impairment set out in the Listing of Impairments, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926).

         Before proceeding to the fourth step, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC). She found that Plaintiff retained the functional capacity to ...


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