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Judith N. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 3, 2019

JUDITH N., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          ANN AIKEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Judith N. ("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 Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on September 24, 2012. For the reasons that follow, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 21, 2010. Following denials at the initial and reconsideration levels, an administrative law judge ("ALJ") held a hearing and issued an unfavorable decision on September 24, 2012. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, this Court set aside the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. Another hearing was held and a different ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 23, 2016. After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the August 2016 decision, Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of that 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 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).

         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.'" 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 alleged onset date through her date last insured. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe limitations: "interstitial cystitis; degenerative disc disease; and seizure disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c))." Tr. 1175. 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 range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she had to avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She could frequently stoop. She had to avoid all exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and moving machinery. She required four unscheduled 5- minute breaks in addition to her normally scheduled breaks. She is limited to work environments that provide close proximity to a restroom.

Tr. 1177. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a secretary. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff ...


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