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Aunjell H. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

August 13, 2019

AUNJELL H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Aunjell H. brings this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”). The Commissioner partially denied plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. For the following reasons, this case is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion and Order.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff protectively filed for DIB on July 30, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of April 28, 2013. Tr. 15, 154-55.[2] These claims were denied initially on October 14, 2014, and upon reconsideration on February 9, 2015. Tr. 71-96. Plaintiff subsequently requested a hearing, which was held on December 12, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Johnson. Tr. 31-70. Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing, represented by counsel; a vocational expert (“VE”), Ms. Gears, also testified. Id. On August 1, 2017, the ALJ issued decision denying Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 15-25. Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review, which was denied June 1, 2018. Tr. 1-6. Plaintiff then sought review before this Court.[3]

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born in February 1982. Tr. 184. Plaintiff experiences disc degeneration, radiculopathy, spondylosis, asthma, osteoarthritis, discectomy, laminectomy, and disc bulge/herniation. Tr. 465, 600-01, 903, 907, 992, 995, 1065, 1134. She stopped working on April 28, 2013, due to her conditions. Tr. 71. Plaintiff completed her GED and previously worked as a collector, nurse assistant, general clerk, furniture salesperson, and fast food worker. Tr. 58, 78, 171-72.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         The 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) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh “both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion.” Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). “Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's.” Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court “must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation”). “[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) (quotation omitted).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected . . . to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity”; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one “which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Id.; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At the fourth step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform “past relevant work.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ first found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through December 31, 2018. Tr. 17. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had these severe: radiculopathy, spondylosis, disc herniation, and asthma. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 19. The ALJ then found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work with the following limitations: she cannot lift or carry more than 25 pounds occasionally; she cannot perform more than occasional stooping, crouching, or climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she cannot have concentrated exposure to extreme cold; and she cannot be exposed to pulmonary irritants. Id. At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 23. At step five, considering ...


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