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Tonia P. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

September 25, 2019

TONIA P. Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Tonia P.[1] seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403, and 1381-1383f. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)and 1383(c)(3). For the reasons that follow, the court recommends that the Commissioner's decision be reversed and remanded for further administrative proceedings.

         Procedural and Factual Background

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for SSI on October 2, 2013, and her application for DIB benefits on October 31, 2013. In both applications, Plaintiff alleges disability beginning October 1, 2011, due to high blood pressure, vertigo, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. Soc. Sec. Admin. R. ("Tr.") 205, ECF No. 13. Plaintiffs claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). The ALJ held a hearing on August 24, 2016, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and testified. A vocational expert, Vernon G. Arne, also appeared at the hearing and testified. On October 18, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Plaintiff submitted additional evidence to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council determined that the evidence did not show a reasonable probability of changing the result of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 2. Therefore, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner for purposes of review.

         Plaintiff was 54 years old on the alleged onset of disability date and was 59 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 20, 175. Plaintiff has a high school education and completed one year of college. Tr. 42, 206. Plaintiff has worked as a bartender, a cashier, and a travel agent for corporate travel. Tr. 42-43, 195.

         The ALJ's Disability Analysis

         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. Each step is potentially dispositive. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1010 (9th Cir. 2014). At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can do other work which exists in the national economy. Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1161 (9th Cir. 2012).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2016. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset of disability. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: bilateral hip degenerative joint disease; left knee osteophyte; hearing loss; and vertigo. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs impairments, or combination of impairments, did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff with a residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, lifting and carrying twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently with additional limitations:

standing, walking, and sitting about six hours of an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. [Plaintiff] is limited to no more than occasional climbing of ramps or stairs. She is limited to no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] is limited to no more than occasional balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. She must avoid even moderate exposure to workplace hazards such as hazardous machineiy, operational control of moving machinery, and unprotected heights. She is to have no exposure to more than a 'moderate' noise intensity levels as described in the Selected Characteristics of Occupation.

Tr. 28.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is able to perform her past relevant work as a travel clerk and a cashier-checker. The ALJ did not make alternative step five findings. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability under the Social Security Act from October 1, 2011, through the date of the decision. Tr. 31.

         Issues on Review

         On appeal to this court, Plaintiff contends the ALJ committed two errors: (1) in light of the evidence submitted to the Appeals Council, the ALJ failed to include all appropriate limitations in the RFC; and (2) the ALJ's step four finding that she is able to perform her past relevant work is not supported by substantial evidence. The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error. Alternatively, the Commissioner contends that even if the ALJ erred, Plaintiff has not demonstrated harmful error.

         Standard of Review

         The district 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); Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hill, 698 F.3d at 1159 (internal quotations omitted); Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. The court must weigh all the evidence, whether it supports or detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Trevizo, 871 F.3d at 675; Garrison, 759 F.3d at 1009. The Commissioner's decision must be upheld, even if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation. Batson v. Commissioner Soc. Sec. Admin.,359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). If the evidence supports the ...

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