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Joseph A. S. v. Commissioner Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Oregon, Eugene Division

January 6, 2020

JOSEPH A. S.[1], Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Joseph A. S. brings this action for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner's”) decision denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under the Social Security Act (the “Act”). This Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c). Both parties consent to jurisdiction by a U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court remands for the immediate calculation and award of benefits.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on March 10, 2015, alleging disability beginning March 7, 2015. Tr. 15. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested and appeared for a hearing before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John D. Sullivan on December 9, 2015. Tr. 15. The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated November 21, 2017. Tr. 15-27. Plaintiff sought review from the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Tr. 1-3. Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the decision.


         A reviewing court shall affirm the Commissioner's decision if the decision is based on 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 of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). “Substantial evidence is ‘more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1159 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir. 1997)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, a court reviews the administrative record as a whole, “weighing both the evidence that supports and detracts from the ALJ's conclusion.” Davis v. Heckler, 868 F.2d 323, 326 (9th Cir. 1989).


         The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation to determine whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to meet the first four steps. Id. If the claimant satisfies his burden with respect to the first four steps, the burden shifts to the commissioner at step five. Id.; see also Johnson v. Shalala, 60 F.3d 1428, 1432 (9th Cir. 1995).

         At step one, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has one or more severe impairments that are expected to result in death or that has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1509, 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii). At step three, the Commissioner determines whether any of those impairments “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“Listings”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The Commissioner then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Id. At step four, the Commissioner determines whether claimant's FRC allows for any past relevant work. Id. At step five, the Commissioner must show that the claimant is capable of making an adjustment to other work after considering the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the Commissioner fails to meet this burden, then the claimant is disabled. Id. 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. Id.; see also Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 953-54 (9th Cir. 2001).


         In the present case, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of March 7, 2015. Tr. 18. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “Charcot-Marie-Tooth [(“CMT”)] disease; status post left[-]hand injury, with loss of tips of left second, third, and fourth fingers.” Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment in the Listings. Id.

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC that allowed him to perform sedentary work “except he could occasionally climb ramps/stairs; he should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl; he could occasionally operate hand controls bilaterally; he could occasionally handle and finger bilaterally; he could occasionally operate a motor vehicle; and his time off task could be accommodated by normal breaks.” Id.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 25. At step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform the representative job of call out operator. Tr. 26-27. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 27.

         Plaintiff seeks review by this Court contending that the ALJ erred in (1) improperly discounting treating doctor Dr. Balm's opinion, and (2) improperly rejecting Plaintiff's subjective complaints. Pl.'s Br. 5, ECF No. 17.

         I. Medical Opinion Evidence

         The ALJ is responsible for resolving conflicts in the medical record, including conflicts among physicians' opinions. Carmickle v. Comm'r., Soc. Sec. Admin., 533 F.3d 1155, 1164 (9th Cir. 2008). Specific and legitimate reasons for rejecting a physician's opinion may include its reliance on a claimant's discredited subjective complaints, inconsistency with medical records, inconsistency with a claimant's testimony, inconsistency with a claimant's daily activities, or that the opinion is brief, conclusory, and inadequately supported by clinical findings. Bray v. Commissioner, 554 F.3d 1219, 1228 (9th Cir. 2009); Tommasetti v. Astrue, 533 F.3d 1035, 1040 (9th Cir. 2008); Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1042-43 (9th Cir. 1995). An ALJ errs by rejecting or assigning minimal weight to a medical opinion “while doing nothing more than ignoring it, asserting without explanation that another medical opinion is more persuasive, or criticizing it with boilerplate language that fails ...

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