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Martha M. W. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

March 21, 2019

MARTHA M. W., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          JAMIE EVANS Evans & Evans, PC Attorney for Plaintiff

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney RENATA GOWIE Assistant United States Attorney District of Oregon SARAH MARTIN Special Assistant United States Attorney Office of the General Counsel Social Security Administration Attorneys for Defendant




         Martha W. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Fed.R.Civ.P. 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB on April 15, 2015, alleging disability beginning June 8, 2014. Tr. 52, 187. Her application was denied initially, and upon reconsideration. Tr. 107-35. On February 8, 2017, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 66-106. Plaintiff testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Id. On April 11, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 49. On February 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision, the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1. Plaintiff timely filed this request for district court review.

         Born June 4, 1953, Plaintiff was 61 years old at the time of her alleged disability onset. Tr. 107. Plaintiff completed two years of college and has degrees in respiratory therapy and registered nursing. Tr. 71, 229. She worked in various nursing capacities at an assisted living center from 2002 through 2013, taking on more of a managerial and behavior risk management role in 2004 due to pains in her hands. Tr. 72, 75-76, 208, 229. Beginning in April 2014, Plaintiff underwent eight laser eye surgeries to correct retinal tears, macular puckering, and cataracts. Tr. 80, 406-92, 503-14. She alleged disability due to low level vision from scarring of retina and macula, dissociated nystagmus, depression, and rheumatoid arthritis of her hands, spine, and knees. Tr. 228.

         Standard of Review

         The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         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).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If so, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates 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). If the claimant does not have a medically determinable, severe impairment, he is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either 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 140-41; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If so, the claimant is presumptively disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's record. See20 C.F.R § 404.1520(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See § 404.1545; see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184.

         At step four, the Commissioner resolves whether the claimant can still perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he 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 existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141 - 42; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled.

         The ALJ's Findings

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 8, 2014, the alleged onset date. Tr. 54. The ALJ also found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018. Id.

         At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had severe visual impairment. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's Heberden's and Bouchard's nodes in her hands were non-severe, but that Plaintiff's conditions of bilateral hand disorder and depression were not medically determinable impairments. Tr. 54-55.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“The Listing”). Tr. 55.

         Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform:

a full range a work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: [s]he should have no exposure to hazards, such as moving mechanical parts, unprotected heights or operate a motor vehicle as part of her work duties. She can perform tasks that involve occasional near and far visual acuity. She can perform tasks that involve occasional field of vision.

         Tr. 55.

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 59. At step five, based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff would be able to perform the jobs of Hospital Cleaner, and Laundry Laborer, both of which existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 60.


         Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly discrediting her subjective symptom claims; (2) improperly discrediting the lay witness testimony of Plaintiff's husband; (3) improperly weighing medical opinion evidence; and (4) failing to account for all of Plaintiff's impairments in the RFC.

         I. Subjective ...

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