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Hall v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 31, 2014

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


JOHN T. RODGERS, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 12, 16. Attorney Cory J. Brandt represents Plaintiff;[1] Special Assistant United States Attorney Richard A. Morris represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 4. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


On February 24, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging disability beginning May 4, 2003. Tr. 25; 211. Plaintiff injured his back while working as a nurse's aide in a nursing home. Tr. 62-63. He testified that his pain grew progressively worse over time. Tr. 63. Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration, and he requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Tr. 89-135. A hearing was held on June 1, 2011, at which medical expert Thomas Colmey, M.D., vocational expert Thomas Polsin, and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified. Tr. 44-88. ALJ Caroline Siderius presided. Tr. 44. The ALJ denied benefits on June 30, 2011. Tr. 25-38. The instant matter is before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties and thus, they are only briefly summarized here. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was single, 41 years old, and lived alone in an apartment. Tr. 65. He did not complete high school, and he earned a GED in 1992. Tr. 81. Plaintiff said he attended community college courses for approximately eighteen months, but quit because he had trouble walking, carrying his bags, and with his concentration and memory. Tr. 65.

Plaintiff testified that during his prior job as a certified nursing assistant, he injured his back. Tr. 62. He continued to work after his injury, but eventually was let go. Tr. 64. Plaintiff's other prior work history includes work as a roofer, siding applicator and machinist. Tr. 79-80.

Plaintiff testified that he had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night. Tr. 75. He testified that he napped at least an hour approximately three to four times per day. Tr. 75. Plaintiff also testified that his daily activities were minimal. Tr. 68. He said he previously cared for a dementia patient who lived upstairs in his building, he performed small repairs at the building, and he mowed the lawn but later "regretted" it. Tr. 68-70. Plaintiff testified that he was not able to keep his apartment clean, he did laundry "a little bit, " he vacuumed "some, " but in general, "I just don't do it." Tr. 70. He also said he shopped for groceries once a month. Tr. 70.

Plaintiff testified he was able to sit for about 15 minutes and stand for ten minutes at a time before he had to change positions. Tr. 73-74. He said he could walk "a couple hundred feet" before he had to stop and rest. Tr. 74. He estimated he was able to lift between 20 and 30 pounds. Tr. 74.


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). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). 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 ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 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 ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987).


The Commissioner 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, 180 F.3d at 1098-99. 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. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (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 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2008, through his last date of insured, December 31, 2008. Tr. 27. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of "degenerative disc disease, degenerative changes right knee, and depression." Tr. 27. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments, alone and in combination, did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments. Tr. 27. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work with a few limitations:

The claimant could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding and he could occasionally climb stairs and ramps. He could frequently balance and he could occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. He should have no exposure to heavy equipment or unprotected heights. The claimant can have occasional contact with the general public and coworkers. He can perform no more than average production requirements. He can perform one to three step tasks.

Tr. 29. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 36. The ALJ found that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, job existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed, such as small parts assembler, or photocopy machine operator. Tr. 36-37. As a result, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 37.


Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by improperly weighing the medical evidence, the lay witness testimony, and by failing to identify specific jobs that Plaintiff could perform at Step Five. ECF No. 12 at 11.


A. Medical ...

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