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Kourtney L. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 21, 2019

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


          Jolie A. Russo United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Kourtney L. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) 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”). For the reasons set forth below, the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.


         Born in July 1980, plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on March 12, 2015, alleging disability beginning February 20, 2005.[2] Tr. 15, 32, 326. Plaintiff later agreed to amend the alleged onset date to September 1, 2009. Tr. 15. Plaintiff alleged disability due to fibromyalgia, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), chronic abdominal pain, anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, severe migraines, pituitary adenoma, gastrointestinal disorder, and asthma. Id. Plaintiff completed the twelfth grade and has past work experience as a restaurant server and as a bartender. Tr. 327.

         Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 174-83. She requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and appeared before ALJ Vadim Mozyrsky on March 9, 2017. Tr. 46-77. The ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled on August 1, 2017. Tr. 12-42. The Appeals Council denied review on July 11, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.


         The ALJ performed the five step sequential analysis for determining whether a person is disabled. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2009, the alleged onset date. Tr. 18. The ALJ also found plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act through March 31, 2010. Id. At step two, the ALJ determined the following impairments were medically determinable and severe: “anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), somatic disorder, substance addiction disorder, gastro-intestinal disorder, endometriosis, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia syndrome, and asthma” Id. At step three, the ALJ determined plaintiff's impairments, neither individually nor in combination, met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment. Tr. 19.

         Because the ALJ did not establish presumptive disability at step three, the ALJ continued to evaluate how plaintiffs impairments affected her ability to work. The ALJ resolved plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff can] lift and carry twenty pound occasionally and ten pounds frequently; push and pull the same amount as lift and carry; stand and walk six hours total of eight; sit six hours of eight; occasionally climb ladders and scaffolds; occasionally crawl; no concentrated exposure to hazards (such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts); no operation of a motor vehicle at the workplace; no concentrated exposure to airborne irritants (such as fumes, dust, odors, and gases); limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and simple work-related decisions; and occasionally interact with coworkers and the public.

         Tr. 21.

         At step four, the ALJ determined plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. Tr. 31. At step five, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was capable of performing jobs in the national economy including silver wrapper, collator/operator, and addressing clerk. Tr. 32-33. The ALJ therefore concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from September 1, 2009 through the decision date. Tr. 33.


         A district court must 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, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence “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) (internal citation omitted). In reviewing the Commissioner's alleged errors, a 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). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         When the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, a court must defer to the ALJ's conclusion. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1198 (internal citation omitted). The reviewing court, however, cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision on grounds the agency did not invoke in making its decision. Stout v. Comm'r,454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006). Finally, the court may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless. Id. at 1055-56. “[T]he burden of showing that an ...

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