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Christopher E. v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

August 7, 2019

CHRISTOPHER E., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER [2]

          MUSTAFA T. KASUBHAI, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         INTRODUCTION

         Christopher E. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381a and 1382c(a)(3)(A). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). For the reasons set forth below, the Commissioner's decision is reversed and this case is remanded for immediate calculation and award of benefits.

         ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)[3] and SSI in December 2016, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2010. Tr. 195-202[4]; Pl. Br. 2, ECF No. 19. The agency denied the claims both initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Tr. 125-44. He appeared for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John Sullivan in December 2017. Tr. 30-64. At the hearing, the ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's claim for DIB because Plaintiff's date last insured preceded his alleged disability onset date. Tr. 35-36. On January 17, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision denying both of Plaintiff's claims for benefits. Tr. 10-29. Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, which the Appeals Council denied in March 2018. Tr. 1-6; 190-91. Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which Plaintiff now appeals. Compl., ECF No. 1.

         Plaintiff was thirty-four years old at the alleged onset date. Tr. 22, Pl. Br. 3, ECF No. 19. Plaintiff “earned a modified high school diploma through an Individualized Education Program, ” and has no past relevant work experience. Tr. 22, 38-39, Pl. Br. 3, ECF No. 19. Plaintiff has a history of childhood abuse, diagnoses of Bipolar II disorder, anxiety and panic disorders, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, rule-out borderline intelligence, and rule-out learning disorder. Tr. 1135-1139. Plaintiff's physical diagnoses lumbar degenerative disc disease status post-fusion, right shoulder degenerative joint disease, and obesity. Tr. 15-16.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         This 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. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and internal quotations omitted); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995) (citing Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). “The court must consider both evidence that supports and evidence that detracts from the ALJ's conclusion; it may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing Vidal v. Harris, 637 F.2d 710, 712 (9th Cir. 1981); Day v. Weinberger, 522 F.2d 1154, 1156 (9th Cir. 1975)). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [this Court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         Disability Analysis

          The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). The five-step sequential inquiry is summarized below, as described in Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         Step One: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. A claimant who is engaged in such activity is not disabled. If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under step two. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b).

         Step Two: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant has one or more severe impairments. A claimant who does not have any such impairment is not disabled. If the claimant has one or more severe impairment(s), the Commissioner proceeds to evaluate the claimant's case under step three. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c).

         Step Three: Disability cannot be based solely on a severe impairment; therefore, the Commissioner next determines whether the claimant's impairment “meets or equals” one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. A claimant who has an impairment that meets a listing is presumed disabled under the Act. If the claimant's impairments are not equivalent to one of the enumerated impairments, between the third and fourth steps the ALJ is required to assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the claimant's record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). The RFC is an estimate of the claimant's capacity to perform sustained, work-related physical and/or mental activities on a regular and continuing basis, despite limitations imposed by the claimant's impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.945; see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184.

         Step Four: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to perform work he or she has done in the past. A claimant who can perform past relevant work is not disabled. If the claimant demonstrates he or she cannot do past relevant work, the Commissioner's evaluation of claimant's case proceeds under step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(e), 416.920(f).

         Step Five: The Commissioner determines whether the claimant is able to do any other work. A claimant who cannot perform other work is disabled. If the Commissioner finds claimant is able to do other work, the Commissioner must show that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that claimant is able to do. The Commissioner may satisfy this burden through the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), or by reference to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. If the Commissioner demonstrates that a significant number of jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant is able to perform, the claimant is not disabled. If the Commissioner does not meet the burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         At steps one through four of the sequential inquiry, the burden of proof is on the claimant. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098. If the claimant satisfies his burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner regarding step five. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g). At step five, the Commissioner's burden is to demonstrate that the claimant can make an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. Id.

         The ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through June 30, 2005. Tr. 15. At step one of the sequential analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date. Tr. 15.

         At step two, he found the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease status post fusion, obesity, major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and right shoulder degenerative joint disease. Tr. 15-16.

         At step three, he found that none of those severe impairments met or equaled any impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 17. The ALJ next assessed an RFC to

perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a). Specifically, the claimant can lift and/or carry 10 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. The claimant can stand and/or walk for two hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks. The claimant can sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with regular breaks. The claimant is unlimited with respect to pushing and/or pulling, other than as indicated for lifting and/or carrying. The claimant is limited to no more than occasionally reaching overhead to the right. He can handle items frequently with the left hand. The claimant can climb ramps and stairs occasionally, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, stoop occasionally, kneel occasionally, crouch occasionally, crawl occasionally. The claimant can understand, remember & carryout simple, routine tasks. The claimant is limited to simple work-related decisions. The claimant is limited to occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers and the public. The claimant's time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.

Tr. 19.

         Proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had no past relevant work experience. Tr. 22. At step five, he found that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform the requirements of jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, such as Touch Up Screener, PCB Assembly; Addresser; and Nut Sorter. Tr. 22-23. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date, through January 17, 2018, the date of the ALJ's unfavorable decision (“the relevant period”). Tr. 23.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff seeks review by this Court asserting that the ALJ failed to identify legally sufficient bases supported by substantial evidence to 1) reject the opinion of examining doctor Scott Alvord, PsyD; 2) reject the “other” medical source opinion of Charles Race, PMHNP; 3) reject Plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony; and 4) reject the lay testimony of Plaintiff's ex-wife. Pl. Br. 6-7, ECF No. 19. The Plaintiff asks that the Court credit-as-true these opinions, and in doing so, reverse the Commissioner's decision and remand the case for benefits. Id. at 16-17. Plaintiff contends that if the opinions were credited as true, they would support a finding that Plaintiff impairments preclude competitive employment as testified to by the vocational expert at Plaintiff's hearing. Id. at 8, 11, 15-16, 57-58. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ met the legal requirements needed to discount these opinions. Def. Br. 2-6, ECF No. 22. For the reasons that follow, this Court finds ...


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