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Nikola G. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

November 16, 2019

NIKOLA G., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER

          MARCO A. HERNÁNDEZ, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1382(c)(3)). Because the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) failed to meet the Commissioner's step five burden, and the Appeals Council erred in rejecting medical opinion testimony, the Court REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this case for further administrative proceedings.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born on January 24, 1980 and was thirty-four years old on February 14, 2014, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 21.[2] Plaintiff has at least a high school education and has no past relevant work. Tr. 21. Plaintiff claims she is disabled based on conditions including scoliosis with back pain. Tr. 14, 157.

         Plaintiff filed her application for benefits on February 18, 2014. The application was denied initially on February 27, 2015, and upon reconsideration on May 19, 2015. Tr. 11. A hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Robert F. Campbell on January 3, 2017. Tr. 30-48. ALJ Campbell issued a written decision on February 13, 2017, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to benefits. Tr. 26. The Appeals Council granted review and issued a decision on June 12, 2018, adopting the ALJ's findings and concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Tr. 1-6.

         SEQUENTIAL DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is disabled if 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). Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

         At step one, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 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). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

         At step three, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's impairments, singly 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, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

         At step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets its burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, 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 had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application filing date. Tr. 13.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had “the following severe impairments: adolescent scoliosis with back pain and no neurologic deficit or significant progress in deformity.” Tr. 14. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's restless leg syndrome, sleep disturbance, fatty liver, and tobacco abuse were not severe impairments. Tr. 14.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 16.

         Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform ...


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