Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Heather O. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

April 30, 2019

HEATHER O.[1], Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, performing the duties and functions not reserved to the Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          Robyn M. Rebers, Robyn M. Rebers LLC Attorneys for Plaintiff.

          Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie, Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney's Office, Joseph J. Langkamer, Special Assistant United States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social Security Administration, Attorneys for Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael H. Simon United States District Judge

         Heather O. (“Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiffs application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For the reasons stated below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance.” Bray v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1039).

         When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a rational reading of the record, and this Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Batson v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did not rely. Id; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at 1226.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Plaintiff's Application

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on February 9, 2015, alleging disability beginning June 25, 2014. Plaintiff was born in November 1973 and was 40 years old at the date of her alleged disability onset. AR 80. In her application, Plaintiff alleges the following disabilities: spinal stenosis of the cervical spine; cervical disc disorder with myelopathy; cervical disc herniation; essential hypertension; sinus tachycardia; migraine with aura; and hypertriglyceridemia. Id. On April 6, 2015, the Commissioner denied Plaintiffs initial application for disability, AR 80-87, and again upon reconsideration. AR 89-97. Plaintiff appealed to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). On January 25, 2017, a hearing was held and Plaintiff testified, represented by counsel. AR 37-79. A medical consultant also testified. Plaintiff, her counsel, and the medical consultant discussed Plaintiffs psoriatic arthritis (diagnosed in August 2015, after Plaintiff filed her application) as a potentially disabling condition. On March 21, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act from June 25, 2014 through the date of the decision. AR 18-27. Plaintiff filed an appeal with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review on February 21, 2018. AR 1-3. This denial of review made the decision of the ALJ the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of that decision. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3).

         B. The Sequential 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 Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing “substantial gainful activity?” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment “severe” under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment “meet or equal” one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her “past relevant work” with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

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. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. 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.” Id; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing “work which exists in the national economy”). 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; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         C. The ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ performed the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 25, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. AR 20. The ALJ noted that although Plaintiff worked and earned $56 in 2015, her earnings during the period at issue were below the threshold amount to be considered substantial gainful activity. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: spine disorder; carpal tunnel syndrome; and recurrent arrhythmias. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in the regulations. AR 20-21.

         The ALJ then determined Plaintiff's RFC, finding that she could perform light work as defined by the regulations with the following functional limitations:

She can stand/walk for six hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can frequently reach, handle, and finger with her dominant hand. She can occasionally reach overhead.

AR 22. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work. AR 24. These jobs include: phlebotomist; photocopy machine operator; electronic component processor; and can machine tender. AR 24-25.

         In the alternative, the ALJ found that there were other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff could also perform. AR 25. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff could perform such jobs as: office helper; mail clerk; gate guard; and security guard. AR 26. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined in the Act, from June 25, 2014, through the date of the ALJ decision, March 21, 2017. AR 26-27.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff seeks review of the final decision by the ALJ, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled. She argues: (A) that the ALJ erred at steps two and three of the sequential analysis when she failed to consider whether Plaintiff's psoriatic arthritis met Listing 14.09(A)(2) for inflammatory arthritis; (B) that the ALJ's RFC assessment is not supported by substantial evidence in the record; and (C) that the ALJ erred when she failed to provide clear and convincing reasons for rejecting Plaintiffs symptom testimony. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. Exclusion of Psoriatic Arthritis at Steps Two and Three

         Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred by failing to list one of Plaintiff s most limiting impairments, psoriatic arthritis, at step two of the sequential analysis, and that the error was harmful and thus grounds for reversal. Plaintiff additionally argues that the ALJ erred at step three because Plaintiffs psoriatic arthritis met Listing 14.09(A)(2) in the regulations, which directs a finding of disability.

         1. ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.