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Melissa R. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Portland Division

November 20, 2019

MELISSA R., [1] Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Patricia Sullivan United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Melissa R. 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”). (Docket No. 1). 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 accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See (Docket No. 4). For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's decisions is REVERSED and this case is REMANDED for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on November 19, 2014, alleging an amended disability onset date of November 14, 2014. Tr. 23, 49, 166-67.[2] Her applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 75, 102. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a hearing was held on March 24, 2017. Tr. 46-74, 122- 23. On July 10, 2017, an ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Tr. 23-35. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on May 8, 2018, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-6. This appeal followed.


         Born in 1970, plaintiff was 44 years old on her amended alleged onset date. Tr. 34, 76. She completed high school and one year of college and has past relevant work as a receptionist and administrative clerk. Tr. 33-34, 68, 197. She alleged disability based on chronic left hip pain, depression, anxiety, and mental confusion. Tr. 196; see also Tr. 25. Plaintiff lives with her husband and adult daughter. Tr. 52-53.


         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 on 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.


         At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff met the insured requirements of the Act and had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. Tr. 25. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had had the following severe impairments: asthma with seasonal allergies; congenital hip dysplasia, status post total left hip replacement; cervical spine degenerative disc disease; anxiety; depression; headaches; insomnia; and bilateral hearing loss and tinnitus treated with hearing aids. 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. 27. The ALJ found that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work, but with the following limitations:

[She] can lift, carry, push, and pull less than 10 pounds frequently and 10 pounds occasionally. She can sit four out of eight hours and stand/walk four out of eight hour[s], in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks. [She] can perform work activities that do not require climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and that occasionally include climbing ramps and stairs. She cannot ambulate over uneven surfaces and must be permitted to use a cane for ambulation away from the workstation, as needed. [She] can occasionally stoop, but cannot kneel, crouch and crawl. She can occasionally reach overhead bilaterally. She can have no exposure to atmospheric conditions and moving mechanical parts and unprotected height/hazards, nor noise that is greater than SCODOT [3] level 3 (moderate), without hearing protection. The claimant can understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions that can be learned in 30 days or ...

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