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Shelley Lee P. v. Commissioner Social Security

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Medford Division

December 11, 2019

SHELLEY LEE P., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Mark D. Clarke, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Shelley P. ("Plaintiff') seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. For the reasons provided below, the Commissioner's decision is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was born April 20, 1963, and was 53 years old at the time her coverage period for disability insurance expired on December 31, 2016. Tr. 18, 27, 144. She has past relevant work experience as a police officer. Tr. 27. In 2010, while working as a police officer, Plaintiff was in a bike crash that injured her knees. Tr. 536. Plaintiff underwent knee surgery in 2011 and again in 2016. Tr. 338-40, 401-04, 410-13. Plaintiffs primary allegations of disability stem from impairment of her knees and pain from fibromyalgia. Tr. 157.

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on April 14, 2014, alleging disability beginning April 5, 2011. Tr. 18. Plaintiffs claim for disability was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 18. A hearing was held on March 3, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Katherine Weatherly. Tr. 40-60. On April 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled at any point through her date last insured. Tr. 18-29. On May 7, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1. Plaintiff now appeals that final decision.

         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). 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). Unless expected to result in death, an impairment 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). This impairment must have lasted or must 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 proceeds to the "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") assessment.
a. The ALJ must evaluate medical and other relevant evidence to assess and determine the claimant's 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 No. 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, 954-55 (9th Cir. 2001).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Id. at 954. The Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five. Id. at 953-54. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant No. in the national economy, "taking into consideration the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience." Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1100 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted); 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 No. in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. Bustamante, 262 F.3d at 954-55; Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099.

         THE ALJ'S FINDINGS

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

1. Plaintiff last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2016. Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of April 5, 2011 ...

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