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Susan L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 6, 2019

SUSAN L., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Michael McShane, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Susan L. 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 further proceedings.


         Born in November 1961, Plaintiff was 52 years old on her alleged onset date of January 1, 2014. Tr. 64.[2] She has a high school education, completed beauty school, and worked as a hairstylist and hair cutting instructor. Tr. 7, 22, 313, 333, 503. She alleged disability due to rheumatoid arthritis, headaches, and high blood pressure. Tr. 312.

         Plaintiff filed her applications for SSI and DIB on September 29, 2014. Tr. 64, 279-93. The claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 251. Plaintiff appeared before ALJ Christopher Dillon on September 29, 2016 and January 3, 2017. Tr. 1-45. In a written decision dated June 13, 2017, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's applications. Tr. 105-15. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's subsequent petition for review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Tr. 121-27. 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.

         In his written decision, the ALJ first found that Plaintiff was the unmarried widow of the deceased insurance worker and met the non-disability requirements for disabled widow's benefits. Tr. 105. The ALJ then proceeded to perform the sequential evaluation for Plaintiff's DIB and SSI claims. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cervical spine disorder; carpal tunnel syndrome and mild degenerative joint disease of upper extremities (hands, wrists, and elbows); respiratory disorder; hypertension; migraines; and obesity. 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. 106; 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC allowed her to perform work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff can lift] no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighting up to 10 pounds; pushing or pulling similar amounts; standing, walking, and sitting for up to 6 hours each; no climbing of ropes/ladders/scaffolding; no more than occasional ability to perform all other postural activity; no more than frequent reaching but no reaching above shoulder level; no more than frequent handling and fingering, bilaterally; no more than occasional exposure to environmental extremes, such as dust, gas, fumes, heat[, ] cold, humidity.

Tr. 108. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff capable of performing her past relevant work as a teacher/vocational trainer hair cutter and hair stylist. Tr. 112-13. The ALJ also found that, in the alternative, Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform other jobs in the national economy including cafeteria attendant, photocopy machine operator, and mail clerk. Tr. 114. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled from January 1, 2014 through the decision date. Id.

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by: (I) failing to provide clear and convincing reasons to reject her subjective symptom testimony; (II) failing to credit the medical opinions of Brent Hoffman, D.O., Nancy Shipley, M.D., and Lynn Bell, ...

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