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Sue C. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

March 20, 2019

PAMELA SUE C., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying, in part, her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). Because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) erred in improperly discounting parts of Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and parts of the medical opinion evidence, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on April 7, 1962 and was fifty-one years old on December 1, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 52.[2] Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“SSA” or “Act”) through December 31, 2018. Tr. 24. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 36. Plaintiff claims she is disabled based on conditions including depression, fibromyalgia, knee problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. 351.

         Plaintiff's benefits application was denied initially on March 24, 2015, and upon reconsideration on June 10, 2015. Tr. 22. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Jo Hoenninger on February 24, 2016. Tr. 47-80. ALJ Hoenninger issued a written decision on July 11, 2016, finding that, as of May 1, 2015, Plaintiff was disabled and entitled to benefits. Tr. 38; 22-38. Plaintiff was therefore not disabled or entitled to benefits between December 1, 2013 and April 30, 2015. Tr. 22-38. The Appeals Council declined review, rendering ALJ Hoenninger's decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1-6.

         The central issue here is whether the ALJ properly determined that Plaintiff was not disabled between December 1, 2013 and April 30, 2015.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         At step one, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets its burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 24.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that as of December 1, 2013, Plaintiff “had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia; carpal tunnel syndrome status post release and left cubital tunnel release; osteoarthritis in the wrists, shoulders, and knees; status post left second metatarsal fracture; chronic leg knee meniscal tear; shoulder tendinopathy and subdeltoid arthritis; right ACL tear; anxiety disorder; major depression disorder; and polysubstance addiction disorder.” Tr. 24-25. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's nonallopathic lesions of the lumbar, sacral and thoracic regions were not severe. Tr. 24.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 25-26. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's physical conditions did not meet the requirements of Listing 1.02, 1.04, or 11.14 and her mental impairments did not satisfy paragraph “C” of the applicable mental disorder listings. Tr. 25-26.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that, before May 1, 2015, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except that

she could occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and could frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant could occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity and could frequently handle bilaterally. She could understand and remember simple instructions and had sufficient concentration, persistence, and pace to complete simple, routine tasks for a normal workday and workweek with normal breaks. The claimant could have superficial contact with the general public and occasional, brief interactions with coworkers and supervisors.

Tr. 26-33. Beginning on May 1, 2015, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work except that

she [could] occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and [could] frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant [could] occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity and [could] frequently handle bilaterally. She [could] understand and remember simple instructions and had sufficient concentration, persistence, and pace to complete simple, routine tasks for a normal workday and workweek with normal breaks. The claimant should have superficial contact with the general public and [could] have occasional, brief interactions with coworkers and supervisors.

Tr. 33-36.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform ...


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