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Kevin H. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Oregon

December 13, 2019

KEVIN H., [1] Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          STACIE F. BECKERMAN United States Magistrate Judge

         Kevin H. (“Plaintiff”) brings this appeal challenging the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner”) denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Commissioner acknowledges that the ALJ erred, and the only issue in dispute on appeal is whether the Court should remand this case for further administrative proceedings or an award of benefits. The Court has jurisdiction to hear this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons explained below, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion to remand this case for further proceedings.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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)).

         The 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)).

         BACKGROUND

         I. PLAINTIFF'S APPLICATIONS

         Plaintiff was born in December 1958, making him fifty-six years old on January 1, 2015, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 17, 28, 63.) Plaintiff is a high school graduate and has past relevant work experience as a deputy sheriff. (Tr. 27, 43, 50, 75, 217.) In his DIB application, Plaintiff alleges disability based on a history of cervical spine fusion surgeries and back pain. (Tr. 63, 78.)

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's DIB application initially and upon reconsideration, and on September 10, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 17.) Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified at a hearing held on March 28, 2017. (Tr. 41-62.) On June 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a written decision denying Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 17-29.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         II. THE SEQUENTIAL ANALYSIS

         A 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).

         The 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).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process to determine if Plaintiff is disabled. (Tr. 17-29.) At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2015, the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 19.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “Obesity, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine with fusion, and diabetes mellitus[.]” (Tr. 19.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment. (Tr. 21.) The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, subject to these limitations: Plaintiff can engage in no more than occasional climbing, crouching, crawling, or overhead reaching. (Tr. 22.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not ...


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