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Andy S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

March 28, 2019

ANDY S., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          MICHAEL MCSHANE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Andy S. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). The Court concludes that the ALJ erred by failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for discounting Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony and for failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for rejecting the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 7, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 20, 2011. Tr. 16. His applications were denied. Id. Plaintiff appeared by video conference before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) at a hearing held December 10, 2015. Id. On February 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff disabled beginning August 23, 2015. Tr. 25. The Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1. This appeal followed.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if he or 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). “Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” Keyser v. Comm'r, 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011).

The five-steps are: (1) Is the claimant presently working in a substantially gainful activity? (2) Is the claimant's impairment severe? (3) Does the impairment meet or equal one of a list of specific impairments described in the regulations? (4) Is the claimant able to perform any work that he or she has done in the past? and (5) Are there significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform?

Id. at 724-25; see also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Id. at 953-54. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, “taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         The ALJ performed the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. Tr. 18. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: discogenic and degenerative disorder of the cervical spine; carpal tunnel syndrome; and chronic headaches. Id. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment. Tr. 18-20.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with the following additional limitations: he is limited to occasional climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; frequent bilateral reaching and no work above shoulder level; frequent gross and fine manipulation with the bilateral upper extremities; avoiding concentrated exposure to extreme cold, heat, and excessive vibration; avoiding the operational control of moving machinery; and avoiding exposure to hazardous machinery and unprotected heights. Tr. 20.

         On August 23, 2015, Plaintiff's age category changed from “an individual closely approaching advanced age” to “an individual of advanced age.” Tr. 23. Beginning on that date, the ALJ determined that there were no jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Tr. 24. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of August 23, 2015. Id.

         With respect to the period between the alleged onset date and August 23, 2015, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Tr. 23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. Id. Based on his RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was able to perform work as a cashier II, self-service store attendant, and mailroom sorter. Tr. 24. As a consequence, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled during the period between the alleged onset date of August 20, 2011, and August 23, 2015.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “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 quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the Commissioner's alleged errors, this court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, courts must defer to the ALJ's conclusion. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1198 (citing Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 1995)). A reviewing court, however, cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision on a ground that the agency did not invoke in making its decision. Stout v. Comm'r, 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006). Finally, a court may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless. Id. at 1055-56. “[T]he burden of showing ...


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