United States District Court, D. Oregon
OPINION AND ORDER
F. BECKERMAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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)).
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)).
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. (Tr. 95, 110.)
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.
THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS
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).
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).
THE ALJ'S DECISION
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.)
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”). 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