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Shannan C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon

December 2, 2019

SHANNAN C., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MARK D. CLARKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Shannan C, seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administrations denying her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II and for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Full consent to magistrate jurisdiction was entered on October 18, 2019 (#16). For the reasons below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for immediate payment of benefits.

         BACKGROUND

         Born November 15, 1979, Plaintiff was thirty-four years old on the alleged onset date. Tr. 24. She completed two years of college coursework. Tr. 344. She served active duty in the U.S. Navy from August 1997 until discharged under honorable conditions in December 1998 for "personality disorder." Tr. 321, 471. She has past relevant work experience as a pizza baker, pizza deliverer, and automobile salesperson. Tr. 24.

         In September 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income, alleging disability beginning February 9, 2014. Tr. 258-72. The agency denied the claims both initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Tr. 159-63, 165-81. She appeared pro se for a hearing before ALJ John Sullivan in March 2017, at which time she voluntarily continued the hearing to obtain a representative. Tr. 87-94, 217. She appeared with a representative for a hearing before ALJ Ted Neiswanger in October 2017. Tr. 38-86. On November 9, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiffs claims for benefits. Tr. 10-32. Plaintiff requested review of the hearing decision, which the Appeals Council denied in February 2018. Tr. 253-54, 1-6. Accordingly, the ALJ decision became the final decision of the agency from which Plaintiff seeks review.

         DISABILITY ANALYSIS

         A claimant is 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); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 (DIB), 416.920 (SSI); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). Each step is potentially dispositive. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The five-step sequential process asks the following series of questions:

1. Is the claimant performing "substantial gainful activity?" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). This activity is work involving significant mental or physical duties done or intended to be done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1510, 416.910. If the claimant is performing such work, she is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is not performing substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two.
2. Is the claimant's impairment "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment or combination of impairments is "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a). Unless expected to result in death, this impairment must have lasted or be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 416.909. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, the analysis ends. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant has a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to step three.
3. Does the claimant's severe impairment "meet or equal" one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, then the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment does not meet or equal one or more of the listed impairments, the analysis continues.
a. At that point, the ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"). This is an assessment of work-related activities that the claimant may still perform on a regular and continuing basis, despite any limitations imposed by his or her impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.920(e), 416.945(b)-(c). After the ALJ determines the claimant's RFC, the analysis proceeds to step four.
4. Can the claimant perform his or her "past relevant work" with this RFC assessment? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant cannot perform his or her past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
5. Considering the claimant's RFC and age, education, and work experience, is the claimant able to make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy? If so, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v), 404.1560(c), 416.960(c). If the claimant cannot perform such work, he or she is disabled. Id.

See also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 953; see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999); Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 140-41. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1100. At step five, the Commissioner must show that 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." Id; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966 (describing "work which exists in the national economy"). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If, however, the Commissioner proves that the claimant is able to perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 953-54; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Applying the five-step analysis, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2015. Tr. 15.
2. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 9, 2014, the alleged onset date. Tr. 15.
3. Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder. Tr. 15.
4. Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 16.
5. Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations. She is limited to simple, routine work tasks involving no interaction with the public and minimal superficial interaction with coworkers. She must work mostly independently and cannot have work-related interactions with coworkers. She is limited to low stress work, which is further defined as no persuasive communication tasks, no teamwork tasks, no fast-paced production pace work, and few changes in work routine or setting. Tr. 18.
6. Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work as a pizza baker, pizza deliverer, or a salesperson (automobiles). Tr. 23-24.
10. Considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that . exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, including cleaner II (transportation vehicles), laundry sorter, and inspector hand packager. Tr. 24-25.

         Consequently, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff is not disabled as defined by the Act. Tr. 25.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The reviewing court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is based on the proper legal standards and the legal findings are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Batson v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); See also Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989). '"Substantial evidence' means 'more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance,' or more clearly stated, 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."' Bray v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 554 F.3d 1219, 1222 (9th Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)). In reviewing the Commissioner's alleged errors, this Court must weigh "both the evidence that supports and detracts from the [Commissioner's] conclusions." Martinez v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 771, 772 (9th Cir. 1986). Variable interpretations of the evidence are insignificant if the Commissioner's interpretation is rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 679 (9th Cir. 2005).

         Where the evidence before the ALJ is subject to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. Batson, 359 F.3d at 1198 (citing Andrews, 53 F.3d at 1041). "However, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a 'specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin.,466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Hammock, 879 F.2d at 501). Additionally, a reviewing court "cannot affirm the [Commissioner's] decision on a ground that the [Administration] did not invoke in making its decision." Stout v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin.,454 F.3d 1050, 1054 (9th Cir, 2006) (citations omitted). Under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. ยง 405(g), the reviewing court has ...


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