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Helsley v. Astrue

December 8, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James P. Hutton United States Magistrate Judge


BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment noted for hearing without oral argument on November 7, 2008. (Ct. Rec. 16, 23). Attorney Maureen J. Rosette represents Plaintiff; Special Assistant United States Attorney Terrye E. Shea represents the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. (Ct. Rec. 8.) After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Ct. Rec. 23) and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Ct. Rec. 16.)


Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI benefits on January 17, 2006. (Tr. 696-699.) On February 27, 2006, he filed a Title II application. Both applications alleged onset as of January 1, 1997. (Tr. 68-70.) The applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 38-39, 43-45.) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Richard A. Say held a hearing on May 16, 2007. (Tr. 740-765.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, medical expert Walter Scott Mabee, Ph.D., and vocational expert Deborah N. Lapoint testified. On June 2, 2007, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was disabled, but substance abuse materially contributed to the finding, barring eligibility. (Tr. 19-29.) The Appeals Council considered updated records but denied a request for review on January 8, 2008. (Tr. 5-9.) Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on February 19, 2008. (Ct. Rec. 1, 4.)


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, the briefs of both Plaintiff and the Commissioner, and will only be summarized here.

Plaintiff was 41 years old at the time of the hearing, has a high school equivalency diploma, and one year or two years of college. (Tr. 85, 135, 744-745.) Plaintiff has worked as a farm machine operator (driving a combine) and as a food processor. (Tr. 81, 87, 760-761.) He alleges disability as of June 1, 1997, due to depression, fatigue, medication side effects and difficulty coping with normal work stressors. (Tr. 80.) Plaintiff testified that he continues to drink. (Tr. 757.) Seroquel causes plaintiff to feel drowsy and "dopey," experience dry mouth, and gain weight. (Tr. 755.)


The Social Security Act (the "Act") defines "disability" 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 Act also provides that a Plaintiff shall be determined to be under a disability only if any impairments are of such severity that a plaintiff is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering plaintiff's 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). Thus, the definition of disability consists of both medical and vocational components. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step one determines if the person is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If not, the decision maker proceeds to step two, which determines whether plaintiff has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).

If plaintiff does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step, which compares plaintiff'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(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, plaintiff is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, which determines whether the impairment prevents plaintiff from performing work which was performed in the past. If a plaintiff is able to perform previous work, that Plaintiff is deemed not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At this step, plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment is considered. If plaintiff cannot perform this work, the fifth and final step in the process determines whether plaintiff is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987).

The initial burden of proof rests upon plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The initial burden is met once plaintiff establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents the performance of previous work. The burden then shifts, at step five, to the Commissioner to show that (1) plaintiff can perform other substantial gainful activity and (2) a "significant number of jobs exist in the national economy" which plaintiff can perform. Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th Cir. 1984).

Plaintiff has the burden of showing that drug and alcohol addiction (DAA) is not a contributing factor material to disability. Ball v. Massanari, 254 F. 3d 817, 823 (9th Cir. 2001). The Social Security Act bars payment of benefits when drug addiction and/or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to a disability claim. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423 (d)(2)(C)and 1382(a)(3)(J); Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F. 3d 1240, 1245 (9th Cir. 1998). If there is evidence of DAA and the individual succeeds in proving disability, the Commissioner must determine whether the DAA is material to the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535 and 416.935. If an ALJ finds that the claimant is not disabled, then the claimant is not entitled to benefits and there is no need to proceed with the analysis to determine whether substance abuse is a contributing factor material to disability. However, if the ALJ finds that the claimant is disabled, then the ALJ must proceed to determine if the claimant would be disabled if he or she stopped using alcohol or drugs.


Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of a Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A Court must uphold the Commissioner's decision, made through an ALJ, when the determination is not based on legal error and is supported by substantial evidence. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). "The [Commissioner's] determination that a plaintiff is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence." Delgado v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 570, 572 (9th Cir. 1983) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975), but less than a preponderance. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 601-602 (9th Cir. 1989); Desrosiers v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence "means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citations omitted). "[S]uch inferences and conclusions as the [Commissioner] may reasonably draw from the evidence" will also be upheld. Mark v. Celebrezze, 348 F.2d 289, 293 (9th Cir. 1965).

On review, the Court considers the record as a whole, not just the evidence supporting the decision of the Commissioner. Weetman v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 20, 22 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting ...

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