United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
A. Hernandez United States District Judge
Dennis S. seeks judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's final decision denying his application for
disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act. Plaintiff argues the Administrative Law Judge
(ALJ) erred in (1) discounting the medical opinion of
Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Heidi Fletemier, M.D.;
(2) not fully crediting Plaintiff's allegations about his
symptoms; and (3) finding that Plaintiff's depression was
not severe. I reverse the Commissioner's decision and
remand for an immediate award of benefits.
who was born in 1952, applied for disability insurance
benefits in March 2013, alleging disability beginning in
February 2013. Tr. 21. His applications were denied initially
and on reconsideration.
January 2016, Plaintiff received a hearing before an ALJ. Tr.
36-70. In April 2016, the ALJ issued his decision, finding
Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 21-30. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's
decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff
now seeks judicial review.
establish disability, a 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 uses the
familiar five-step sequential process to determine whether a
claimant has established disability. See Bowen v.
Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). In the first four
steps of the process, the claimant has the burden of proof,
and at the fifth step the burden of production shifts to the
Commissioner. See Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094,
1098 (9th Cir. 1999).
at the first step of the process, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment
from his alleged onset date of February 1, 2013 through the
date he was last insured, December 31, 2015. Tr. 23. Although
Plaintiff worked part-time in his family janitorial business
after his alleged onset date, his income and earnings were
below the level of substantial gainful activity. Tr. 23.
second step, the ALJ considered the severity of
Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments. See
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. An impairment is
“severe” if it significantly limits the
claimant's ability to perform basic work activities and
is expected to persist for twelve months or longer. See
id., 482 U.S. at 141. Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
had the severe impairments of congestive heart failure and
cardiomyopathy. Tr. 23. As to mental impairments, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable
mental impairment of depressive disorder not otherwise
specified did not cause more than minimal limitation in
[Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic mental work
activities and was therefore nonsevere.” Tr. 24.
third step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's impairments
did not meet or equal any listed impairments that would
preclude substantial gainful activity. Tr. 25. The ALJ then
assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC).
RFC is the Commissioner's estimate of a claimant's
ability to perform sustained, work-related physical and
mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite
the limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The ALJ found that
Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, with the
additional limitations that he could lift and carry up to ten
pounds occasionally or frequently; could sit six hours of an
eight-hour day, and stand or walk two hours of eight hours in
a normal workday; could occasionally climb ramps or stairs,
but should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; could
occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; and should avoid
concentrated exposure to extreme heat, fumes, dust, gases,
and hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery.
fourth step, the ALJ considers whether a hypothetical person
with the plaintiff's RFC could perform the
plaintiff's past relevant work. See Yuckert, 482
U.S. at 141. Here, Plaintiff's past relevant work
included working as a janitorial supervisor, a skilled,
medium-level job, although Plaintiff performed it as a
heavy-level job; program analyst, a skilled, sedentary job;
manager, a skilled, sedentary job; and route sales driver, a
semi-skilled, medium job. Tr. 29. A vocational expert
testified at the hearing that a person with the proposed RFC
could perform Plaintiff's past relevant work as a program
analyst and manager. The ALJ found Plaintiff was not
disabled, and therefore did not address the fifth step, which
asks whether the claimant could perform any jobs that exist
in significant numbers in the national economy. See
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 142.
court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the
decision is based on proper legal standards and the findings
of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record
as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v.
Comm'r, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004).
“Substantial evidence” means “more than a
mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.”
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th
Cir.1995). Substantial evidence is “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Id. If the evidence is
susceptible of more than one rational interpretation, the
court must uphold Commissioner's conclusion. Burch v.
Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).
The ALJ's Decision to Give Little Weight to Dr.
the ALJ gave little weight to the June 2015 opinion of
Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Heidi L. Fletemier,
M.D., who had been Plaintiff's primary care physician
since at least August 2012. Tr. 465. The ALJ found that Dr.
Fletemier's opinion was contradicted by Plaintiff's
own allegations and by other medical opinions.
resolves conflicts in the medical record. Carmickle v.
Comm'r, 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008).
“If a treating or examining doctor's opinion is
contradicted by another doctor's opinion, an ALJ may only
reject it by providing specific and legitimate reasons that
are supported ...