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Kala S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

August 26, 2019

KALA S.,[1] Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Kala S. (“plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under the Social Security Act (“SSA”). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). For the reasons set forth below, that decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for immediate calculation and payment of benefits.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on February 11, 2014, alleging disability beginning on August 17, 1989. Tr. 11. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 67, 79. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held on January 23, 2017. Tr. 39-59. Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and the ALJ took testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 15-28. After the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's decision is therefore the Commissioner's final decision subject to review by this court. 20 C.F.R. § 422.210.


         Born in August 1989, plaintiff was 27 years old at the time of the ALJ hearing. Tr. 43. Plaintiff is a high school graduate and has no past relevant work history. Tr. 43-44. Plaintiff alleges she is unable to work due to a combination of the following impairments: obesity, learning disorder in reading, dementia due to head trauma, unspecified anxiety disorder, depression, lumbar and thoracic spondylosis, menorrhagia, hypothyroidism, atopic dermatitis, uterine polyp, gestational diabetes, mild thoracic scoliosis, and hearing loss. Tr. 17.


         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 Social Security Administration 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. 15-17.

         At step one, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date, February 11, 2014. Tr. 17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, learning disorder in reading, dementia due to head trauma, unspecified anxiety disorder, depression, and spondylosis of the lumbar and thoracic spine. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled any listed impairment. Tr. 18. The ALJ next assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that she could perform medium work with the following limitations:

She can lift, carry, push, and pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. She can stand and/or walk for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and she can sit for about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with normal breaks. She can have no exposure to moving mechanical parts and unprotected height hazards. She is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple, routine and repetitive instructions that can be learned in 30 days or less. She needs instructions verbally and by demonstration. She is limited to few changes in work setting and work duties and no conveyor belt paced work. She can have no public contact and only occasional direct coworker interaction.

         Tr. 19.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff has no past relevant work. Tr. 26.

         At step five, the ALJ determined that considering plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert (VE), she could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including hand packager, laundry worker, and kitchen helper. Tr. 27.

         Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled between February 11, 2014, the date on which the application was filed, through the date of the decision, March 17, 2017. Tr. 28.


         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. Lingenfelter v. Astrue, 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 720 (9th Cir. 1998)). The reviewing court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Ryan v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 528 F.3d 1194, 1205 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007)); see also Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). 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) (quoting Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004)); see also Lingenfelter, 504 F.3d at 1035.


         I. Subjective Symptom Testimony

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ wrongfully discounted her subjective symptom testimony. When a claimant has medically-documented impairments that could reasonably be expected to produce some degree of the symptoms complained of, and the record contains no affirmative evidence of malingering, “the ALJ can reject the claimant's testimony about the severity of . . . symptoms only by offering specific, clear and convincing reasons for doing so.” Smolen v. Chater, 80 F.3d 1273, 1281 (9th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). A general assertion that the claimant is not credible is insufficient; the ALJ must “state which . . . testimony is not credible and what evidence suggests the complaints are not credible.” Dodrill v. Shalala, 12 F.3d 915, 918 (9th Cir. 1993). The reasons proffered must be “sufficiently specific to permit the reviewing court to conclude that the ALJ did not arbitrarily discredit the claimant's testimony.” Orteza v. Shalala, 50 F.3d 748, 750 (9th Cir. 1995) (internal citation omitted). If the “ALJ's credibility finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record, [the court] may not engage in second-guessing.” Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 959 (9th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted).

         Effective March 28, 2016, the Commissioner superseded Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-7p, governing the assessment of a claimant's “credibility, ” and replaced it with SSR 16-3p. See SSR 16-3p, available at2016 WL 1119029. SSR 16-3p eliminates the reference to “credibility, ” clarifies that “subjective symptom evaluation is not an examination of an individual's character, ” and requires the ALJ to consider all of the evidence in an individual's record when evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms. Id. at *1-2. The ALJ must examine “the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence; an individual's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of symptoms; statements and other information provided by medical sources and other persons; and any other relevant evidence in the individual's case record.” Id. at *4.

         A. Inconsistent Statements

         The ALJ discounted plaintiff's subjective symptom testimony based on inconsistent statements regarding her social ...

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