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Denise W. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

October 31, 2019

DENISE W., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STACIE F. BECKERMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Denise W. (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands for further proceedings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The district court may set aside a denial of benefits only if the Commissioner's findings are “‘not supported by substantial evidence or [are] based on legal error.'” Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006)). Substantial evidence is defined as “‘more than a mere scintilla [of evidence] but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)).

         The district court “cannot affirm the Commissioner's decision ‘simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'” Holohan v. Massanari, 246 F.3d 1195, 1201 (9th Cir. 2001) (quoting Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999)). Instead, the district court must consider the entire record, weighing the evidence that both supports and detracts from the Commissioner's conclusions. Id. Where the record as a whole can support either a grant or a denial of Social Security benefits, the district court “‘may not substitute [its] judgment for the [Commissioner's].'” Bray, 554 F.3d at 1222 (quoting Massachi v. Astrue, 486 F.3d 1149, 1152 (9th Cir. 2007)).

         BACKGROUND

         I. PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATION

         Plaintiff was born in June 1971, making her forty-two years old on August 19, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 18, 29, 95, 110.) Plaintiff completed two years of college and has past relevant work experience as a radio dispatcher, cashier II, and office manager. (Tr. 28- 29, 85-86, 216.) In her DIB application, Plaintiff alleges disability due primarily to fibromyalgia, back and cervical spine issues, nerve damage, depression, and diabetes.[2] (Tr. 95, 110.)

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's DIB application initially and upon reconsideration, and on January 5, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 18.) Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing held on December 14, 2016. (Tr. 53-93.) On August 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's DIB application. (Tr. 18-30.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of that decision.

         II. THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS

         A claimant is considered 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). Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in any substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant can return to any past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at 724-25. The claimant bears the burden of proof for the first four steps. Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001). If the claimant fails to meet the burden at any of those steps, the claimant is not disabled. Id.; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987).

         The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five of the sequential analysis, where the Commissioner must show 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, 180 F.3d at 1100. If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954 (citations omitted).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if Plaintiff is disabled. (Tr. 18-30.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 19, 2013, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 20.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “[L]umbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, urticaria, diabetes mellitus, and fibromyalgia.” (Tr. 21.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment. (Tr. 23.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, subject to the following limitations: (1) Plaintiff needs to be limited to “unskilled, repetitive, routine tasks in two-hour increments, ” (2) Plaintiff can engage in no more than “occasional stooping, squatting, crouching, crawling, kneeling, and climbing ramps and stairs, ” (3) Plaintiff “can never climb ropes, ladders, [or] scaffolds, ” and (4) Plaintiff is “likely to be absent from work one time every two months and off task at work up to 10% of the time but still meeting the minimum production requirements of the job.” (Tr. 23.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. (Tr. 28.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that she could perform, including work as a semiconductor bonder, “circuit board touch up greeter, ” and “printed circuit layout taker.” (Tr. 30.)

         DISCUSSION

         In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for discounting the opinions of Plaintiff's treating orthopedic surgeon, Janmeet Sahota, M.D. (“Dr. Sahota”), and the non-examining state agency physicians, Neal Berner, M.D. (“Dr. Berner”), and Sharon Meyers, D.O. (“Dr. Meyers”); and (2) failing to provide germane reasons for discounting the lay witness testimony provided by Plaintiff's friend, Christine Wizner (“Wizner”).[3] As explained below, the Court finds that the Commissioner's decision is based on harmful legal error and not supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court reverses the Commissioner's decision and remands this case for further administrative proceedings.

         I. MEDICAL ...


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