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Lisa A. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

July 30, 2019

LISA A., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MARK D. CLARKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Lisa A. ("Plaintiff') seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administrations denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision should be REVERSED and REMANDED for immediate payment of benefits.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in 1956. Tr. 45, 94. She has a high school education. Tr. 94. Plaintiff has several diagnosed physical and mental impairments. Her physical impairments include the following: joint degeneration in the right shoulder, with reduced range of motion, for which Plaintiff underwent rotator cuff surgery, Tr. 561, 712, 731; lumbar degenerative disc disease and arthritis, with herniated gait discs, sciatica, and radiation of pain bilaterally to the lower extremities, Tr. 546, 553, 559, 722-23; bilateral hip bursitis, with accompanying back pain and reduced range of motion, Tr. 325-27, 373-76, 500, 540, 553-54; gastroesophageal reflux disease with Barrett's esophagus and irritable bowel syndrome, Tr. 327; chronic muscular strain superimposed on degenerative instability with osteoporosis, Tr. 327; and tinnitus, Tr. 327. Plaintiff also suffers from the following mental health impairments: anxiety with panic disorder, Tr. 325, 360, 434, 564; depression, with loss of interest in activities, sleep disturbance, decreased energy, and difficulty concentrating or thinking, Tr. 359-60, 502, 564; and alcohol use disorder, Tr. 360, 366. The record shows that Plaintiffs mental impairments worsened after the death of her son in 2012. Tr. 502, 362-71. Her anxiety and depression increased, as did her drinking. Tr. 502, 362-71. Plaintiff went into alcohol recovery treatment, which she successfully completed, Tr. 567, and the record shows that her other mental impairments improved as a result, Tr. 65.

         On June 28, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2011, with a date last insured (DLI) of December 31, 2015, for DIB purposes. Tr. 18. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a hearing was requested. Tr. 18. On August 18, 2016, a hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Robert Frank Spaulding presiding from Portland, Oregon, with Plaintiff appearing from Medford. Tr. 40-78. The ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 29. Plaintiff filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied. Tr. 1-3. The ALJ's ruling thus became the final decision of the Commissioner, and Plaintiff now seeks review of that decision.

         DISABILITY 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). 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)(H). Unless expected to result in death, an impairment 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). This impairment must have lasted or must 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 proceeds to the "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") assessment.
a. The ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's 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, 954-55 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 954. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Id. at 953-54. 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." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted); 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 954-55; Tackett, 180 F.3dat 1099.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying the five-step analysis, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015, and has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 1, 2011. Tr. 20.
2. Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, obesity, post right-shoulder rotator cuff repair, bursitis of the right shoulder, pyriform ...

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