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Catherine V v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

August 27, 2019

CATHERINE V.[1] Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         Catherine V. (Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the Act). This court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Because the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, I REVERSE and REMAND for an immediate calculation and award of benefits.


         Plaintiff was born in 1974. Tr. 25. She worked from 1998 to 2004 as an officer with the Lincoln City Police, and from 2004 to 2006 as a detective with the West Linn Police Department. Tr. 163. Plaintiff alleges that she has been disabled since October 2006 from a combination of impairments, including shoulder injuries, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, migraines, and the side-effects of medications. Tr. 15. Because Plaintiff was insured for disability benefits under the Act until December 31, 2012, she must show that she was disabled on or before that date to be entitled to benefits. Tr. 13.

         After the agency denied Plaintiffs claim for disability benefits, Plaintiff received a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in February 2017. Tr. 32-51. In May 2017, the ALJ issued his decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 13-26. In December 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff then timely filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial of benefits.


         The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on proper legal standards and 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)). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is "supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1038 (9th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). The reviewing court may not affirm the Commissioner's decision based on a ground that the agency did not invoke in making its decision. Stout v. Comm'r, 454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir. 2006).


         The Act defines "disability" as 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). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the ALJ uses a five-step sequential inquiry. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Here, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the alleged onset date in October 2006 through the date she was last insured, December 31, 2012. Tr. 15.

         At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; rotator cuff syndrome of the left shoulder, status post surgical interventions; degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, status post surgical interventions; epilepsy; fibromyalgia; and systemic lupus erythematosus. Tr. 15.

         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. 18. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs residual functional capacity (RFC), finding Plaintiff could perform sedentary work as defined by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), subject to the following limitations:

she could lift ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently, carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. She could push and pull as much weight as she could lift and carry, but pushing and pulling [is] limited to occasional bilaterally. She could sit up to six hours in an eight-hour day. She could stand and walk up to six hours total in an eight-hour day. She was limited to occasional overhead reaching bilaterally. She was precluded from [climbing] ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She was precluded from [working] around hazards. such as unprotected heights or heavy moving machinery, and operating a motor vehicle.

Tr. 19.

         At step four, the AL J found Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a police officer. Tr. 24-25.

         At step five, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner. Bustamonte v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner must show at step five that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999). Here, at step five the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform sedentary jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, including document preparer and information clerk. Tr. 25. The ALJ therefore found Plaintiff was not disabled at any time from October 19, 2006, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2012, the date Plaintiff was last insured. Tr. 26.


         Plaintiff argues that (1) the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion of Dr. Sue Lewis; and (2) the ALJ improperly discounted Plaintiffs subjective symptom testimony.

         I. The ALJ's Assessment of Dr. Sue Lewis's Medical Opinion

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the opinion of Dr. Sue Lewis, an internist who was Plaintiffs primary care physician throughout the relevant period. The ALJ noted Dr. Lewis's opinion that Plaintiff "would have likely been off task 80-90% of the workday and would have missed more than two workdays per month on an ongoing basis during the relevant period," but found that Dr. Lewis's opinion was "not consistent with the medical evidence of record, which documented good activities of daily ...

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