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Heidi K. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

September 12, 2019

HEIDI K., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MARK D. CLARKE, MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Heidi K. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her applications for SSI and SSDIB under the Social Security Act. The parties have consented to magistrate jurisdiction. For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         BACKGROUND [2]

         Plaintiff was born on January 26, 1970 and was 39 years old at the established onset date. Tr. 33. She has at least a high school education and has past relevant work as a bookkeeper, night auditor, food service manager, user support analyst, and administrative secretary. Tr. 32. She alleges disability beginning October 4, 2011, due to fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, middle back strain, and adjustment disorder with anxiety and depression. On July 25, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on the same date. In both applications, the claimant alleged disability beginning December 15, 2009. These claims were denied initially on February 13, 2014, and upon reconsideration on November 12, 2014. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a written request for hearing on December 19, 2014. Tr. 19. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge whose December 16, 2016, denial became final when the Appeals Council chose not to review it on December 19, 2017. Tr. 1. Plaintiff now seeks review.

         As a procedural matter, Plaintiff previously filed an application on February 28, 2011, which was addressed in a prior determination dated October 3, 2011. This determination became administratively final when Plaintiff did not request review within the stated time period. Tr. 19. Accordingly, the relevant period in this case is from October 4, 2011. Tr. 20. Any discussion of evidence prior to this date is for the limited purpose of establishing the existence of Plaintiffs medically determinable impairments, evaluating the Plaintiffs symptoms, and providing a historical context of the Plaintiffs current condition. Id.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if he or she is 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). "Social Security Regulations set out a five-step sequential process for determining whether an applicant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act." Keyser v. Comm 'r. Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724 (9th Cir. 2011). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 4, 16.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing "substantial gainful activity"? 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510; 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Unless expected to result in death, an impairment is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a); 416.921(a). This impairment must have lasted or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1509; 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment "meet or equal" one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.152O(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis proceeds to the "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") assessment.
a. The ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's RFC. This is an assessment of work- related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e); 404.1545(b)-(c); 416.920(e); 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her "past relevant work" with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v); 404.1560(c); 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954-55 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 954. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Id. at 953-54. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, "taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566; 416.966 (describing "work which exists in the national economy"). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954-55; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         THE ...


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