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Connie T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

June 10, 2019

CONNIE T., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Youlee Yim You, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Connie T. (“plaintiff”), seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff's application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI Social Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         The Commissioner has filed a motion to remand, in which she concedes that the ALJ erred in assessing the medical opinion evidence, but argues that a remand for proceedings, rather than a remand for benefits, is the proper remedy. Def. Br. 2-3, ECF #21. The motion is granted to the extent the Commissioner seeks a remand; however, because the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, the case is REVERSED and REMANDED for the immediate calculation and payment of benefits.


         Born in 1960, plaintiff was 53 years old on the alleged onset date. Tr. 79. Plaintiff has past relevant work as a registered nurse, certified nurse's assistant, ward clerk, hospice nurse, and nursing supervisor. Tr. 31-32.

         Plaintiff has been diagnosed with chronic back pain, radicular pain, lumbar stenosis with instability, advanced degenerative disc disease, extreme lumbar decompression, anxiety, Type II diabetes, adjustment disorder, and failed back surgery syndrome. Tr. 562, 712, 723-24, 729, 873, 1009, 1022, 1033, 1037.

         Plaintiff had a failed back surgery in 2010. Tr. 432. In September 2014, plaintiff underwent an anterior interbody fusion at ¶ 3-L4. Tr. 889. That surgery also failed, and plaintiff needed corrective surgery, which was performed in November 2015. Tr. 850, 858, 1004, 1037. The corrective surgery also was unsuccessful in resolving plaintiff's back pain. Tr. 860, 867-69, 1040.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on March 12, 2014, alleging disability beginning February 26, 2014. Tr. 19. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on May 15, 2014, and upon reconsideration on September 3, 2014. Id. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 12, 2016, in which plaintiff testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 40-76. On September 8, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 19-34. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's decision is therefore the Commissioner's final decision subject to review by this court. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210.


         The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir. 2007). This court must weigh the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion and “‘may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009-10 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Instead, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld if it is “supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted); see also Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035.


         Disability is the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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). The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. This sequential analysis is set forth in the Social Security regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, in Ninth Circuit case law, Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006) (discussing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999)), and in the ALJ's decision in this case, Tr. 20-21.

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since ...

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