United States District Court, E.D. Washington
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
WM. FREMMING NIELSEN, Senior District Judge.
Before the Court are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 18 and 19). Attorney Dana Madsen represents Plaintiff. Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey Staples represents Defendant. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties and is fully informed.
Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income (SSI) benefits on February 17, 2009, alleging disability beginning on November 15, 2002, due to physical and mental impairments. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration.
A first hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James Sherry on September 1, 2010. The ALJ, with the consent of Plaintiff's counsel, amended the onset date to March 5, 2007. The ALJ determined that the Plaintiff was not disabled. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded for further proceedings. (Tr. at 157-59.) A supplemental hearing was held on September 18, 2012 before the same ALJ. At the supplemental hearing, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified as did W. Benton Boone, M.D., a medical expert (ophthalmologist), Scott Mabee, Ph.D., a medical expert, and Sharon Welter, a vocational expert (VE). After the supplemental hearing, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was, in fact, disabled but not entitled to SSI because Plaintiff's substance use disorders materially contributed to his disability. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's second request for review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff timely sought judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
The facts of the case are set forth in detail in the transcript of the proceedings and are briefly summarized here.
Plaintiff was 63 years old at the time of the supplemental hearing. (Tr. at 96.) Plaintiff completed school through the 12th grade and afterwards attended culinary school for about nine months. (Tr. at 60-61.) In the past, Plaintiff worked as a construction/demolition laborer, cook, cement grinder operator, dishwasher, and housekeeping staff member. Plaintiff has a history of legal problems and has spent a significant time in prison. Plaintiff also has a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Since 2007, Plaintiff has participated in five drug treatment programs, but continued to use alcohol and marijuana after completing these programs. (Tr. at 94.) At the supplemental hearing held September 18, 2012, Plaintiff stated that he had been sober for approximately two years. (Tr. at 103.)
Plaintiff claims to be disabled and unable to work on account of poor eye sight, pain in his legs and knees, and mental disorders including depression, anxiety, and difficulties with social functioning. Despite his impairments, Plaintiff reports that he can walk distances between one and two miles (albeit with pain and periodic rest breaks), prepare simply meals, clean his studio apartment, go grocery shopping, and complete chores such as dishes and laundry. Plaintiff spends most his time at home watching television. (Tr. at 103.)
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999). This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents him from engaging in his previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot do his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work; and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy which claimant can perform. Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (9th 2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of "disabled" is made. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v), 416.920(a)(4)(i-v).
At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not engage is substantial gainful activity since March 5, 2007, the amended alleged onset date.
At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disk disease; possible chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; depressive disorder/major depressive disorder with mixed anxiety; personality disorder with antisocial features; and substance abuse (primarily alcohol in the relevant period).
At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's mental impairments met Listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.08 (personality disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders) described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1(20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d)). But the ALJ also concluded that, if Plaintiff stopped his substance use, none of the impairments or combination of impairments would meet or medically equal any of the Listings (but the impairments would still be considered severe).
At step four, the ALJ found that, if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, Plaintiff would have the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c) subject to numerous physical, environmental, and social restrictions. The ALJ further found that, if Plaintiff stopped the substance use, Plaintiff would be able to perform past relevant work as a linen clerk, cook helper, and grinder operator.
Although the ALJ was not required to proceed to step five after finding that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work, the ALJ went on to find that, even if Plaintiff was not capable of performing past relevant work, Plaintiff could make a successful adjustment to other work. The ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs existing in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including work as a fish cleaner, dining room attendant, or laundry worker.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
In Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001), the court set out the standard of review:
A district court's order upholding the Commissioner's denial of benefits is reviewed de novo. Harman v. Apfel, 211 F.3d 1172, 1174 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the Commissioner may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. [ Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097]. Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999).
The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, although deference is owed to a reasonable construction of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000).
It is the role of the trier of fact, not this court, to resolve conflicts in evidence. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400. If evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the ALJ did not apply the proper legal standards in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). If substantial evidence exists to support the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence exists that will support a finding of either disability or non-disability, the Commissioner's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987).
Did the ALJ err in finding that Plaintiff had a substance abuse disorder and that such disorder was a contributing factor material to Plaintiff's disability?
At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff disabled because his psychological impairments met Listings 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.08 (personality disorders), and 12.09 (substance addiction disorders). Defendant does not contest this finding. The parties' real dispute is whether (1) the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in determining that Plaintiff's alcoholism was a factor material to his disability, and (2) whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support such a finding. The Court finds that the ALJ did not apply the correct legal standards and that the ...