United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division
AMBER M. S.,  Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
OPINION & ORDER
A. HERNÁNDEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
was born on December 18, 1979 and was thirty-two years old on
December 3, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 143,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. §§
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability
onset date. Tr. 145.
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.
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
four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform
any past relevant work. Tr. 157.
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.
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