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Joan L. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 5, 2019

JOAN L., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          Merrill Schneider SCHNEIDER, KERR, & ROBICHAUX Attorney for Plaintiff

          Renata Gowie Assistant United States Attorney District of Oregon Heather L. Griffith Social Security Administration Office of the General Counsel Attorneys for Defendant

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Joan L. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). The Commissioner's decision is reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on April 17, 2012, alleging disability as of February 14, 2011. Tr. 144.[2] Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. Id. A hearing was held on October 21, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 82. On December 10, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Tr. 158-59. The Appeals Council vacated the hearing decision and remanded the case for further consideration by the same ALJ. Tr. 164-67.

         On January 19, 2017, a supplemental hearing was held and Plaintiff appeared with counsel. Tr. 35. On July 12, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled during the relevant period. Tr. 25- 26. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's opinion. Tr. 1-6.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff initially alleged disability based on chronic back pain, arthritis, obesity, and fibromyalgia. Tr. 99. She was 59 at the time of her alleged onset date and 65 at the time of the second administrative hearing. Tr. 35, 99. Plaintiff has a high school education and two Associate's Degrees with past relevant work as a clerical worker. Tr. 25, 40.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment 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). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. See, e.g., Valentine v. Comm'r, 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a “medically severe impairment or combination of impairments.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         In step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairment meets or equals “one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity.” Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         In step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. In step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets her burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity after her alleged onset date of February 14, 2011. Tr. 19. Next, at step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “low back pain (presumed lumbar spine degenerative disc disease); fibromyalgia; phlebitis; edema of lower extremities; and obesity.” Tr. 20. However, at step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 22. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following limitations:

[S]he can lift and carry 10 pounds occasionally and frequently. She can sit for six hours in an eight-hour day and stand or walk for two hours each in an eight-hour day, but requires a cane for walking any significant distance outside her home. She can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights due to antalgic gait and the use of a cane.

Id. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a clerical worker. Tr. 25. By finding plaintiff was able to do past relevant work, the ALJ determined plaintiff was not disabled; therefore, the ALJ did not proceed to step five. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 404.1520(f).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if the Commissioner applied proper legal standards and the findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence” means “more than a mere scintilla, but less than preponderance.” Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d ...


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