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Lauren M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

August 19, 2019

LAUREN M., [1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Lauren M. (“plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title II Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Title XVI Social Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“Act”). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). The Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence; therefore, it is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 21, 2011, and an application for SSI on June 28, 2011. In both applications she alleged disability beginning June 3, 2011. Tr. 30. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on November 2, 2011, and upon reconsideration on March 21, 2012. Id. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on July 19, 2013, in which plaintiff testified, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). Tr. 51-81. On August 1, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 169-78. On February 25, 2015, the Appeals Council vacated the ALJ decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. Tr. 30, 184-88.

         The ALJ held a subsequent hearing on March 4, 2016, in which plaintiff testified again, as did a VE. Tr. 82-104. On April 13, 2016, the ALJ issued a second decision finding plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 30-43. After the Appeals Council denied her request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-8. The ALJ's decision is therefore the Commissioner's final decision subject to review by this court. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210.


         The reviewing 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. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Lewis v. Astrue, 498 F.3d 909, 911 (9th Cir. 2007). This court must weigh the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion and “‘may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009-10 (9th Cir. 2014) (quoting Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007)). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner when the evidence can reasonably support either affirming or reversing the decision. Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007). Instead, where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld if it is “supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted); see also Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035.


         Disability is the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or 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). The ALJ engages in a five-step sequential inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. This sequential analysis is set forth in the Social Security regulations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920, in Ninth Circuit case law, Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006) (discussing Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999)), and in the ALJ's decision in this case, Tr. 31-32.

         At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity “at least during a portion of 2012.” Tr. 33. However, the ALJ concluded there had been “a continuous 12-month period during which [plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity.” Id.

         At step two, the ALJ found plaintiff has the severe impairments of: residuals of surgery for benign brain tumor, history of seizure disorder, organic mental disorder, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and opiate dependence in remission with Suboxone. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 34. The ALJ next assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and determined that she could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the following limitations: she can occasionally engage in postural activities, except she should not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, she should avoid concentrated exposure to humidity and vibrations, she should avoid even moderate exposure to hazards, she is limited to unskilled work with incidental public contact, and she should not work as part of a team. Tr. 35.

         At step four, the ALJ found plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as an aesthetician or cashier/checker. Tr. 42.

         At step five, the ALJ determined that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, ...

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