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Katie H. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

July 17, 2019

KATIE H.,[1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



         Plaintiff Katie J. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) decision denying her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”). This court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's final decision is reversed and remanded for the immediate payment of benefits.

         Born in March 1975, Plaintiff was 16 years old on her alleged onset date of June 15, 1991. Tr. 225.[2] She was 43 years old at the time of the administrative hearing. Tr. 41. She has a high school education, a doula certification, and past work experience in various jobs including concession worker and fabric cutter. Tr. 317. She alleged disability due to Wegener's granulomatosis, shingles, depression, HBP, and back issues.[3] Tr. 316.

         On February 3, 2015, Plaintiff filed her applications for SSI and DIB. Tr. 217, 223. Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 145, 150-60. Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and appeared for a hearing on May 26, 2017. Tr. 41-78. In a written decision dated July 21, 2017 the ALJ amended Plaintiff's alleged onset date to March 3, 1993 and denied Plaintiff's applications. Tr. 19-34. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent petition for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 1-7. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review.


         A reviewing court shall 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 of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is ‘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.'” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, a court reviews the administrative record as a whole, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the ALJ's conclusion. Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).


         The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4) (2012). The burden of proof rests upon the claimant at steps one through four, and with the Commissioner at step five. Id.; Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). At step five, the Commissioner must demonstrate that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. Id. 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. Id.; see also Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54.

         The ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not performed substantial gainful activity since March 3, 1993, her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 22. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and bursitis of the knee. Id. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of the listings. Tr. 27; 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC allowed a full range of medium work at all exertional levels. Tr. 27. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work because, while she had held various jobs, she had never performed substantial gainful activity. Tr. 28-33. At step five, the ALJ found that based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy such that Plaintiff could sustain substantial gainful employment despite her impairments. Tr. 33. Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform the occupations of industrial cleaner, hospital cleaner, and hand packager. Tr. 34. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by: (I) failing to credit the medical opinion of treating rheumatologist James Rosenbaum, M.D.; (II) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons to reject her subjective symptom testimony; (III) failing to supply germane reasons for rejecting the lay testimony; (IV) failing to find her Wegener's granulomatosis and herpes zoster to be “severe” at step two; and (V) erroneously concluding at step five that she could perform “other work” in the national economy.

         I. Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erroneously rejected the opinion of her treating rheumatologist James Rosenbaum, M.D. “There are three types of medical opinions in social security cases: those from treating physicians, examining physicians, and non-examining physicians.” Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 692 (9th Cir. 2009). “Where a treating or examining physician's opinion is contradicted by another doctor, the ‘[ALJ] must determine credibility and resolve the conflict.'” Id. (citation omitted). “An ALJ may only reject a treating physician's contradicted opinions by providing ‘specific and legitimate reasons that are supported by substantial evidence.'” Ghanim v. Colvin, 763 F.3d 1154, 1161 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 528 F.3d 1194, 1198 (9th Cir. 2008)).

         “An ALJ can satisfy the ‘substantial evidence' requirement by ‘setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1012 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 725 (9th Cir. 1998)). Merely stating conclusions is insufficient: “The ALJ must do more than state conclusions. He must set forth his own interpretations and explain why they, rather than the doctors', are correct.” Id. “[A]n ALJ errs when he rejects a medical opinion or assigns it little weight while doing nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without explanation that another medical opinion is ...

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