United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
OPINION AND ORDER
Aiken, United States District Judge.
Debbie B. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").
The Commissioner found Plaintiff disabled and awarded
Disability Insurance Benefits pursuant to Title II and
Supplemental Security Income pursuant to Title XVI of the
Social Security Act as of February 4, 2016 but did not find
that Plaintiff was disabled before this date. For the reasons
set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED
and REMANDED for an immediate award of benefits.
November 15, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") that alleged
disability since July 15, 2013, Plaintiff based her request
for benefits on back conditions, hypothyroidism, obesity, and
asthma. Plaintiffs DIB and SSI applications were initially
denied on March 19, 2014, and upon reconsideration, with the
reconsideration denial dated September 11, 2014. An
administrative hearing was held before an Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ") on June 1, 2016. At the hearing,
Plaintiff testified and was represented by council. A
vocational expert ("VE") also testified. On July 8,
2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding
that Plaintiff became disabled on February 4, 2016. Plaintiff
sought review by the Appeals Council which was denied on
August 7, 2017 and Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court.
district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if
it is based upon proper legal standards and the findings are
supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Berry v. Astrue, 622 F.3d 1228, 1231
(9th Cir. 2010). "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 Soc. Sec, 740 F.3d 519, 522 (9th Cir. 2014)
(citation and quotation marks omitted). The court must weigh
"both the evidence that supports and the evidence that
detracts from the ALJ's conclusion." 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).
initial burden of proof rests upon Plaintiff to establish
disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1484
(9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, Plaintiff
must demonstrate and "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).
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(a)(4); id § 416.920(a)(4). At step
one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" since the alleged
disability onset date. Tr. 22; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); id. §§
4l6.92O(a)(4)(i), (b). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff
had the following severe impairments: "obesity;
degenerative disc disease; lumbar post-laminectomy syndrome
with an L4-Sl fusion; and bilateral leg edema; 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c); id. §§
416.920(c)." Tr. 22. At step three, the ALJ determined
that since the alleged onset date of disability July 15,
2013, Plaintiffs impairments, whether considered singly or in
combination, did not meet or equal one of the listed
impairments that the Commissioner acknowledges are so severe
as to preclude substantial gainful activity. Tr. 28; 20
C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii), (d); id
§§ 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii), (d).
then assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity
("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e);
id. §§ 416.920(e). The ALJ found that
The residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as
defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416(a) except she can lift,
carry, push, pull, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10
pounds frequently. She can sit, stand, or walk for four hours
each in an eight-hour day. She can sit for two hours at a
time, but then will need to stand or walk for no more than
five minutes before resuming a seated position. She can
occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds. She can tolerate no exposure to hazards such as
machinery and unprotected heights.
At step four, the ALJ concluded that since July 15, 2013,
Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. Tr. 28;
20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), (f). Additionally,
the ALJ found that prior to February 4, 2016, the Plaintiff
was not disabled, but on that date, Plaintiffs age category
changed to an individual closely approaching advanced age.
Tr. 28; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 and 416.963. The ALJ
continued to step five and found that between July 13, 2015
and July 4, 2016, Plaintiff could perform work existing in
the national economy. The ALJ based this decision on
Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, and
determined that Plaintiff could have performed the
requirements of occupations like the following: a bench hand,
table worker, or a stem mounter. Tr. 29; 20 C.F.R.
§§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v), (g)(1). Accordingly, the ALJ
found Plaintiff was not disabled for that time and denied her
applications for benefits prior to February 4, 2016.
alleges that the ALJ erred in four ways in determining that
she was not disabled before July 4, 2016. First, the ALJ
improperly determined that Plaintiff was not a reliable
source for subjective symptom testimony. Second, the ALJ
failed to provide specific germane reasons for discounting
the lay witness testimony of Plaintiffs roommate. Third, the
ALJ failed to provide legally sufficient reasons for
discounting medical opinions of treating physician, Dr.
Beckstrand, and Plaintiffs surgeon, Dr. Angeles. Fourth, the
ALJ failed to adequately account for Plaintiffs sitting and
standing limitations when questioning the VE and in
determining Plaintiffs RFC. It is not disputed that Plaintiff
is disabled, the dispute is over the onset date of Plaintiffs
disability. I address each of Plaintiffs arguments in turn.
Subjective Symptom Testimony
claims the ALJ failed to give specific, clear and convincing
reasons for rejecting her subjective symptom testimony. To
determine whether a claimant's testimony is credible, an
ALJ must perform a two-stage analysis. 20 C.F.R. §
416.929. The first stage is a threshold test in which the
claimant must produce objective medical evidence of an
underlying impairment that could reasonably be expected to
produce the symptoms alleged. Molina v. Astrue, 674
F.3d 1104, 1112 (9th Cir. 2012). At the second stage, absent
evidence of malingering, the ALJ must provide specific, clear
and convincing reasons for rejecting the claimant's
testimony regarding the severity of symptoms.
Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1036 (9th
Cir. 2007). The ALJ must make findings that are sufficiently
specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the
ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's
testimony. Ghanim u. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1163
(9th Cir. 2014).
found that Plaintiffs medically determinable impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause her symptoms, but that
Plaintiffs statements concerning the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of her symptoms were "not fully
supported." Tr. 25.
stated that "[t]he medical record partially supports the
severity of the claimant's symptoms." Id.
The ALJ then summarized the medical record but did not
identify any specific testimony or explain how that testimony
was inconsistent with the record, A general assertion that
the claimant is not credible is insufficient; the ALJ must
"state which...testimony is not credible and what
evidence suggests the complaints are not credible."
Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th
only specific reason that the ALJ provided for discounting
Plaintiffs testimony was that Plaintiffs reported daily
activities "support[ed] that [Plaintiff] was able to
function at a reduced range of ...