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Shari R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

July 3, 2018

SHARI R., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Shari R. appeals the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income benefits. She alleges that the ALJ (1) erroneously rejected medical opinions, (2) improperly discredited Rhyne's testimony, and (3) the improperly found that the Commissioner's burden at step five was met. The ALJ properly weighed the opinion testimony but failed to properly identify representative occupations that Plaintiff could perform with her residual functional capacity that exist in substantial numbers in the national economy. As a result, the case is remanded to the Social Security Administration for additional proceedings consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on August 26, 2011, alleging disability beginning May 13, 2011. AR 143, 151. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. AR 89, 98. Plaintiff received an unfavorable decision on October 26, 2012. AR 17-43. Plaintiff sought review of the final administrative decision from this Court. AR 691-93. On November 12, 2015, the Court remanded the matter for additional proceedings under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. 405(g). AR 711. On December 31, 2015, the Appeals Council remanded the case for a rehearing consistent with the order of this Court. AR 718.

         On September 9, 2016, a hearing was held before ALJ R. J. Payne. AR 589. In a decision filed on June 12, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. AR 575. The Appeals Council did not assume jurisdiction of the case, and the ALJ's June 2017 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner after the Court's remand. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(a). Plaintiff now seeks review of the ALJ's June 2017 decision.


         A “disability” is defined as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The decision-maker uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.

         Step one assesses whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If he is, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If he is not, the decision-maker proceeds to step two.

         Step two assesses whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does not, the disability claim is denied. If the claimant does, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step three compares the claimant's impairment with a number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404 Subpt. P App. 1, 416.920(d). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment does not, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.

         Step four assesses whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work he has performed in the past by examining the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant is able to perform his previous work, he is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the evaluation proceeds to the fifth step.

         Step five, the final step, assesses whether the claimant can perform other work in the national economy in view of his age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). If the claimant can, the disability claim is denied. If the claimant cannot, the disability claim is granted.

         The burden of proof shifts during this sequential disability analysis. The claimant has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show 1) the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity, and 2) that a “significant number of jobs exist in the national economy, ” which the claimant can perform. Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th Cir. 1984). A claimant is disabled only if his impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).


         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2011. AR 561. At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable severe impairments: bilateral hip dysplasia/bursitis, arthralgias/fibromyalgia, obesity, depressive order, borderline intellectual functioning, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorder. Id. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff had complaints of abdominal pain, COPD, and carpal tunnel syndrome, but found that none of these conditions were severe impairments. AR 16. The ALJ noted that Plaintiff's records reflected hyperlipidemia, hypertension, sinusitis, and vitamin D deficiency, lower back pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease, closed left ankle fracture, and conversion disorder. However, the ALJ found that these did not constitute severe impairments.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. AR 565. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(a). The ALJ imposed the following limitations: the claimant can lift no more than 10 pounds at a time occasionally and lift or carry less than 10 pounds frequently; can sit for 6 hours and stand and walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday with normal breaks; can occasionally can climb ramps/stairs, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, balance, but cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; needs to avoid concentrated exposure to heavy industrial-type vibration; and no working at unprotected heights. Mentally, the claimant is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple routine work tasks; is restricted to low stress level work (e.g., not fast-paced work, strict production and quota type work, managerial work, independent decision-making, or work requiring more than simple work place judgments); and no memorization of visual information in conjunction with a job. AR 566-67. In reaching this conclusion, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but he found that some of Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects were not entirely credible. AR 567-71.

         In determining Plaintiff's physical capacity, the ALJ gave great weight to the opinions of reviewing physicians Nancy Winfrey and Reuben Beezy. AR 25. The ALJ gave partial weight to the opinions of examining physician William Drenguis and reviewing physicians Guthrie Turner and Gordon Hale. The ALJ also gave partial weight to the opinion of reviewing physician Ivan Reveron. The ALJ gave minimal weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Jill Simon. AR 571. The ALJ also gave little weight to the opinions of ARNP Kristine Kehler and DSHS reviewing physicians Myrna Palasi and Brent Packer. AR 572.

         At step five, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work and that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 574-75.

         IV. ...

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