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Amber M. S. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

May 29, 2019

AMBER M. S., [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) improperly ignored the medical opinion evidence of Dr. Gomes and improperly discounted lay witness testimony, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on December 18, 1979 and was thirty-two years old on December 3, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 143, 157.[2] Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act (“SSA” or “Act”) through December 31, 2017. Tr. 145. Plaintiff has at least a high school education and is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 157. Plaintiff claims she is disabled based on conditions related to a L5-SI Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion. Tr. 367.

         Plaintiff's benefits application was denied initially on September 30, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 21, 2015. Tr. 143. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge B. Hobbs on November 3, 2016. Tr. 172-99. ALJ Hobbs issued a written decision on December 21, 2016, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and entitled to benefits. Tr. 159. The Appeals Council declined review, rendering ALJ Hobbs' decision the Commissioner's final decision. Tr. 1-6.

         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. 145.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff “had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease status post lumbar surgery; unspecified depressive disorder; unspecified anxiety disorder; and somatic symptom disorder. Tr. 145. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's headaches and cervical spine disorders were not severe, and Plaintiff's fibromyalgia was medically non-determinable under SSR 12-2p. Tr. 146.

         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. 146-48. In particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's physical conditions did not meet the requirements of Listing 1.04, 12.04, 12.06 or 12.07 and her mental impairments did not satisfy paragraph “C” of the applicable mental disorder listings. Tr. 147-48 Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except that she

can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. The claimant can tolerate no exposure to extreme cold, extreme vibration, and hazards such as machinery and unprotected heights. Due to pain, side effects of medications, and mental impairments, the claimant can understand, remember, and carry out only short and simple instructions and only make simple work-related judgments and decisions.

Tr. 148.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 157.

         At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert to find that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Tr. 158. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. Id.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Vasquez v. Astrue, 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). “Substantial evidence means 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.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts consider the record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id.; Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). “Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed.” Vasquez, 572 F.3d at 591 (internal quotation marks omitted); see alsoMassach ...


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