United States District Court, D. Oregon
J. Wall, Attorneys for Plaintiff.
J. Williams, United States Attorney, and Renata Gowie,
Assistant United States Attorney, United States
Attorney's Thomas M. Elsberry, Special Assistant United
States Attorney, Office of General Counsel, Social Security
Administration, Attorneys for Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Michael H. Simon United States District Judge.
D. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”) denying
Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social
Security Act. This Court has jurisdiction to review the
Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). For the following reasons, the Commissioner's
decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.
district court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if
it is based on the proper legal standards and the findings
are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g); see also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501
(9th Cir. 1989). “Substantial evidence” means
“more than a mere scintilla but less than a
preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting
Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir.
1995)). It means “such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. (quoting Andrews, 53
F.3d at 1039).
the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational
interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be
upheld. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th
Cir. 2005). Variable interpretations of the evidence are
insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is a
rational reading of the record, and this Court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See
Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190,
1193, 1196 (9th Cir. 2004). “[A] reviewing court must
consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm
simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting
evidence.” Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630
(9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quotation
marks omitted)). A reviewing court, however, may not affirm
the Commissioner on a ground upon which the Commissioner did
not rely. Id.; see also Bray, 554 F.3d at
was born September 21, 1972. AR 181. He graduated from high
school, attended four years of college (but did not
graduate), and speaks English. AR 185, 695, 94. At the time
of his alleged disability onset, Plaintiff was 42 years old.
AR 254. Before his alleged disability onset, his most recent
full-time employment was in 2002, when he worked in a
mailroom as an administrative temporary employee. AR 39-40,
alleges disability due to major depressive disorder,
post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), anxiety,
and autism spectrum disorder. AR 52, 254. On May 13, 2015,
Plaintiff protectively filed his SSI application, along with
a Title II application for disability insurance benefits
(“DIB”), alleging a disability start date of May
13, 2002. AR 181-92. On March 7, 2017, Plaintiff withdrew his
DIB claim and amended his alleged disability onset date to
May 13, 2015. AR 254.
Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and
upon reconsideration, and on December 14, 2015, Plaintiff
requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). AR 114. Plaintiff, represented by
counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing held on March
10, 2017. AR 36. In April 2017, the ALJ issued a written
decision denying Plaintiff's application. AR 13-27.
Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.
The Sequential Analysis
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); see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920
(SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987).
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)(ii). An
impairment or combination of impairments 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).
Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have
lasted or 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 continues. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate
medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine
the claimant's “residual functional capacity”
(“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
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
(9th Cir. 2001).
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four.
Id. at 953; see also Tackett v.
Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999);
Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears
the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d
at 1100. 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.”
Id.; 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 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.
The ALJ's Decision
one of the five-step sequential analysis, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since May 13, 2002. AR 15. At step two, the ALJ found that
Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: depression,
an anxiety disorder, an autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, and a
substance addiction disorder. AR 15. At step three, the ALJ
found that none of Plaintiff's impairments-or
combinations of impairments-meet or equal the severity of the
“listed” impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. AR 16.
next assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that Plaintiff
could perform work “at all exertional levels but with
the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant is
limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and simple
work-related decisions. The claimant can have occasional
contact with coworkers and the public.” AR 18. At step
four, the ALJ noted that the Plaintiff had no past relevant
work. AR 25. At step five, the ALJ asked a vocational expert
(“VE”) whether jobs exist in the national economy
for an individual with Plaintiff's age, education, work
experience, and assessed RFC. The VE testified that Plaintiff
could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy, including Hospital Housekeeper, Floor
Cleaner, and Pressure Washer. AR 26. Accordingly, the ALJ
found Plaintiff “not disabled.” Id.
contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) improperly rejecting the
opinion of examining psychologist Caleb Burns, Ph.D.; (2)
improperly rejecting the opinion of examining psychologist
Karla Causeya, Psy.D.; and (3) improperly rejecting the
opinion of treating physician's assistant Sandra Ford,
P.A. The ALJ gave “little weight” to the opinions
of Dr. Burns, Dr. Causeya, and Ms. Ford, all of whom
concluded that Plaintiff's assessed mental impairments
rendered him disabled. AR 22-23, 473, 707, 711. The ALJ gave
“great weight, ” however, to two non-examining
state agency psychological consultants, both of whom assessed
Plaintiff's impairments as less restrictive than did Dr.
Burns, Dr. Causeya, or Ms. Ford. AR 24.
Standards for Reviewing Medical Opinions
Opinions by Physicians
is responsible for resolving conflicts in the medical record,
including conflicts among physicians' opinions.
Carmickle, 533 F.3d at 1164. The ALJ generally must
accord greater weight to the opinion of an examining
physician than that of a non-examining physician.
Orn, 495 F.3d at 631. An ALJ may, however, reject an
examining, non-treating physician's opinion “in
favor of a nonexamining, nontreating physician when he gives
specific, legitimate reasons for doing so, and those reasons