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Discher v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Alaska

October 14, 2016

EDWARD LEE DISCHER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO REMAND AT DOCKET 17

          RALPH R. BEISTLINE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Claimant, Edward Lee Discher, filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on August 26, 2013, which Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denied. Claimant has exhausted his administrative remedies and seeks relief from this Court, arguing that the Commissioner's decision that she is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act is not supported by substantial evidence. Claimant seeks a reversal of the Commissioner's decision and a remand for further proceedings.

         Claimant has filed an opening brief on the merits, construed by this Court as a motion for summary judgment. Defendant opposes, arguing the denial of benefits is supported by substantial evidence and free of legal error. Claimant has replied. Docket nos. 17, 19 & 20. For the reasons set forth below, Claimant's Motion at Docket 17 is GRANTED and this matter is REMANDED for further consideration.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The findings of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) or Commissioner of Social Security regarding any fact shall be conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(2010). A decision to deny benefits will not be overturned unless it either is not supported by substantial evidence or is based upon legal error. Matney ex rel. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing Gonzalez v. Sullivan, 914 F.2d 1197, 1200 (9th Cir. 1990)). “Substantial evidence” has been defined by the United States Supreme Court as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Such evidence must be “more than a mere scintilla, ” but also “less than a preponderance.” Id. at 401; Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). In making its determination, the Court considers the evidence in its entirety, weighing both the evidence that supports and that which detracts from the Commissioner's conclusion. Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld. Gallant v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 1450, 1452-53 (9th Cir. 1984).

         III. DETERMINING DISABILITY

         The Social Security Act (the “Act”) provides for the payment of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) to people who have contributed to the Social Security program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a) (2012). In addition, supplemental security income benefits (“SSI”) may be available to individuals who are age 65 or over, blind or disabled, but who do not have insured status under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 1381 (2012). Disability is defined in the Social Security Act as follows:

[I]nability 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 12 months.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (2012). The Act further provides:

An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), “work which exists in the national economy” means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A) (2012).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process for determining disability. Claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). The burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. Id. The steps, and the ALJ's findings in this case, are as follows:

         Step 1. Determine whether the claimant is involved in “substantial gainful activity. Here the ALJ found that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2013, the alleged onset date. Tr. 14.

         Step 2. Determine whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. A severe impairment significantly limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, and does not consider age, education, or work experience. The severe impairment or combination of impairments must satisfy the twelve-month duration requirement.

         The ALJ determined that Claimant had the following severe impairments: arthritis, degenerative disc disease, hypothyroidism, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Tr. 14. The ALJ specifically found that Claimant's depression was not severe.

         Step 3. Determine whether the impairment is the equivalent of a number of listed impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1 that are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. If the impairment is the equivalent of one of the listed impairments and meets the duration requirement, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If not, the evaluation goes on to the fourth step. According to the ALJ, the Claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 15.

         Residual Functional Capacity. Before proceeding to step four, a claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) is assessed. This RFC assessment is used at both step four and step five.[1] In evaluating his RFC, the ALJ concluded ...


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