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Congreve v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 21, 2014

JOY L. CONGREVE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


THOMAS O. RICE, District Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 15, 24 and 29). Plaintiff is represented by William C. Kirsch and Paul L. Clark. Defendant is represented by L. Jamala Edwards. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Plaintiff's motion and denies Defendant's motion.


The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited: the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "Substantial evidence" means relevant evidence that "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to "more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance." Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether this standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. If the evidence in the record "is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court "may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless." Id. at 1111. An error is harmless "where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination." Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).


Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on August 1, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of July 16, 2009. Tr. 163-66. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Tr. 91-93, 100-01, 109-13. A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge on March 24, 2011. Tr. 35-88. The ALJ rendered a decision denying Plaintiff benefits on April 29, 2011. Tr. 15-23.

The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of Title II of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. Tr. 17. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 16, 2009, the amended alleged onset date. Tr. 117. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments consisting of (1) degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post fusion surgery; and (2) chronic pain syndrome of unknown etiology. Tr. 17. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet or medically equal a listed impairment. Tr. 20. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to:

[L]ift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She is able to stand and/or walk for a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour workday, and can sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She would need to be able to alternate positions at will. She is limited to occasional operation of fort pedals bilaterally. She should never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and should never balance. She has occasional limitations on all other postures. She should avoid even moderate exposure to unprotected heights.

Tr. 20. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was able to perform past relevant work as a medical administrator. Tr. 22. In light of this step four finding, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act and denied her claims on that basis. Tr. 22-23.

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on November 29, 2012, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of ...

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