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Lori W. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

September 23, 2019

LORI W., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PATRICIA SULLIVAN, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Lori W. seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") 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). All parties have consented to allow a Magistrate Judge to enter final orders and judgment in this case in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 6). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED and this case is DISMISSED.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on May 6, 2015, alleging a disability onset date as of October 1, 2014. Tr. 13, 151-54.[2] Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 80, 93. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), and a hearing was held on November 17, 2016. Tr 30-51, 106. On March 10, 2017, an ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 13-24. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review on January 29, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Born in 1956, plaintiff was 57 years old on her alleged onset date and 60 years old on the date of her hearing. Tr. 34, 71, 151. She completed the twelfth grade and has past work experience as an administrative clerk, sales clerk, semiconductor assembler, manager of a lodging facility, kitchen helper, and waitress. Tr. 23, 177; see also Tr. 35-54, 61-62. She alleges disability based upon heart problems, high blood pressure, a 2009 heart attack, and clogged arteries in her neck. Tr. 176. Plaintiff is married and lives with her spouse. Tr. 198, 467.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         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) (quotation omitted). The court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusion." 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, [the court] may not substitute [its] judgment for the ALJ's." Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted); see also Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005) (holding that the court "must uphold the ALJ's decision where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation"). "[A] reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence." Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007) (quotation 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 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. First, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity"; if so, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the Commissioner determines 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). A severe impairment is one "which significantly limits [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141. At step three, the Commissioner determines whether the impairments meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Id; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the analysis proceeds. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At this point, the Commissioner must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations his impairments impose. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). At the fourth step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant can perform "past relevant work." Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can work, he is not disabled; if he cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 146 n.5. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 142; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets this burden, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.

         THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Act and had engaged in substantial gainful activity in one quarter since May 2, 2014, the alleged onset date. Tr. 15. The ALJ also found that plaintiff worked after the alleged onset date. Id. However, because the ALJ found there was a "valid basis for denying [plaintiffs] application," he proceeded through the remaining steps of the sequential analysis. Id. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had had the following severe impairments: carotid artery disease, lumbar and cervical radiculopathy, osteoarthritis of both hips, coronary disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"). Id. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or equaled a listed impairment. Tr. 18. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, with the following limitations: she could frequently climb ramps and stairs and occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she could occasionally be exposed to extreme cold and vibration; and she was limited to occasional exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. Tr. 19. At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an administrative clerk and ...


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