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Michelle S. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

September 16, 2019

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

          MERRILL SCHNEIDER Schneider Kerr & Robichaux Of Attorney for Plaintiff,

          BILLY J. WILLIAMS United States Attorney RENATA GOWIE Assistant United States Attorney

          LISA GOLDOFTAS Special Assistant United States Attorney Office of the General Counsel Of Attorney for Defendant



         Michelle S. ("Plaintiff) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Based on a careful review of the record, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.

         Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB on December 4, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of September 30, 2009 due to degenerative disc disease with lumbar radiculitis; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; conductive hearing loss in both ears; asthma; depression; anxiety; and chronic fatigue. (Tr. 287-88, 426, 456.) She applied for SSI on January 21, 2014. (Tr. 289-94.) Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 195-211.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and administrative hearings were held on January 13, 2017 and July 18, 2017. (Tr. 40-68, 212-13.) ALJ Marilyn Mauer issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled on August 14, 2017. (Tr. 15-33.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on June 27, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6.) This appeal followed.

         Factual Background

         Born in March 1969, Plaintiff was 40 years old on her alleged onset date. (Tr. 287.) She has a GED. (Tr. 315.) Plaintiff previously worked as a security guard, a manager in a group home, and as a medication aide at an assisted living facility. (Tr. 316.)

         Standard of Review

         The 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. Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It 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) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). "Where the evidence as a whole can support either a grant or a denial, [a court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish disability. Howard v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1484, 1486 (9th Cir. 1986). To meet this burden, the claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected ... to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If so, she is not disabled.

         At step two, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, she is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or equal "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, she is presumptively disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can still perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant can perform past relevant work, she is not disabled; if she cannot, the burden shifts to the Commissioner.

         At step five, the Commissioner must establish the claimant can perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national or local economy. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         ALJ's Decision

         The ALJ performed the sequential analysis. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in SGA since the alleged onset date, September 30, 2009. (Tr. 17.) At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, mild to moderate narrowing at ¶ 5-S1; fibromyalgia; asthma; morbid obesity; anxiety disorder; depression; and post-traumatic stress disorder traits. (Tr. 18.) At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Id.

         The ALJ next determined Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with ...

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