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Dennis S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 11, 2019

DENNIS S., [1]Plaintiff,


          Marco A. Hernandez United States District Judge

         Plaintiff 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.


         Plaintiff, 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.

         In 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.


         To 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).

         Here, 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.

         At the 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.

         At the 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[2]; could sit six hours of an eight-hour day, and stand or walk two hours of eight hours in a normal workday[3]; 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. Tr. 25.

         At the 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.


         This 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).


         I. The ALJ's Decision to Give Little Weight to Dr. Fletemier's Opinion

         Here, 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.

         The ALJ 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 ...

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