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Loetscher v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 14, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JAMES P. HUTTON, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 17 and 19. Attorney Paul Clark represents plaintiff (Loetscher). Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey E. Staples represents defendant (Commissioner). The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 17, reverses the ALJ's decision and remands for further administrative proceedings pursuant to sentence four. Defendant's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 19, is denied.


Loetscher protectively applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB) on March 25, 2009, alleging onset as of December 1, 2008 (Tr. 153-59). The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 92-100).

Administrative Law Judge Marie Palachuk held a hearing July 6, 2011. Medical and vocational experts, as well as Mr. Loetscher, testified (Tr. 52-89). On July 27, 2011, the ALJ entered a partially favorable decision finding Loetscher's impairments medially equaled Listing 11.16 from onset through June 14, 2010. The ALJ found that thereafter Loetscher no longer met or equaled a Listing based on medical improvement. He was unable to perform past relevant work, but could perform other work (Tr. 21-36). On November 23, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review. Later, they set aside the denial to consider additional evidence. After considering the new evidence the council decided it did not provide a basis for changing the ALJ's decision, and on November 28, 2013 they denied review (Tr. 1-12). Loetscher filed this appeal pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) on January 18, 2013. ECF No. 1, 5.


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision and the parties' briefs. They are only briefly summarized here and throughout this order as necessary to explain the Court's decision.

Loetscher was 26 years old at onset and 29 at the hearing (Tr. 79-80). He completed high school and three years of college. He has worked as a chemical processing laborer, kitchen helper, stock clerk, bagger, microcomputer support specialist and home attendant (Tr. 82-84, 173, 179). In the past he abused nitrous oxide, with some relapses. This caused neuropathy which impaired the ability to walk. It also caused weakness, numbness, pain, fatigue and lack of stamina (Tr. 526).


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 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 medially 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)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 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) is considered. If plaintiff cannot perform past relevant 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 mental or physical 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).


If the claimant is found disabled at any point in the process, the ALJ must also decide if disability continues through the date of the decision. In making this determination, the ALJ must follow an eight-step evaluation process (20 C.F.R. 404.1594). If the ALJ can make a decision at any step, the evaluation does not proceed to the next step.

At step one, the ALJ must determine if the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. If the claimant is performing SGA and any applicable trial work period has been completed, the claimant is no longer disabled. C.F.R. 404.1594(f)(1)).

At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526). If the claimant does, his disability continues (20 C.F.R. 404.1594(f)(2)).

At step three, the ALJ must determine whether medical improvement has occurred (20 C.F.R. 404.1594(f)(3)). Medical improvement is any decrease in medical severity of the impairment(s) as established by improvement in symptoms, signs and/or laboratory findings (20 C.F.R. 404.1594(b)(1)). If medical improvement has occurred, the ...

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