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Graham v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

March 31, 2014

WILLIAM LEE GRAHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER AFFIRMING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

KAREN L. STROMBOM, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73 and Local Rule MJR 13, the parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. After reviewing the parties' briefs and the remaining record, the Court hereby finds that for the reasons set forth below, defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 30, 2009, plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and another one for SSI benefits, alleging in both applications that he became disabled beginning May 1, 2007, due to left hip and right ankle problems. See ECF #13, Administrative Record ("AR") 19, 196. Both applications were denied upon initial administrative review on March 9, 2010, and on reconsideration on September 2, 2010. See AR 19. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on September 22, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified, as did a lay witness and a vocational expert. See AR 33-90.

In a decision dated October 13, 2011, the ALJ determined plaintiff to be not disabled. See AR 19-27. Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council on March 14, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). See AR 1; 20 C.F.R. § 404.981, § 416.1481. On May 6, 2013, plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See ECF #4. The administrative record was filed with the Court on August 2, 2013. See ECF #13. The parties have completed their briefing, and thus this matter is now ripe for the Court's review.

Plaintiff argues defendant's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an award of benefits or in the alternative for further administrative proceedings, because the ALJ erred: (1) in finding that none of plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled the criteria contained in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listings"); (2) in rejecting plaintiff's subjective complaints; and (3) in finding plaintiff to be capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred in determining plaintiff to be not disabled, and therefore finds defendant's decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.

DISCUSSION

The determination of the Commissioner that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court, if the "proper legal standards" have been applied by the Commissioner, and the "substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports" that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler , 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Commissioner of Social Security Admin. , 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan , 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) ("A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.") (citing Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services , 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

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) (citation omitted); see also Batson , 359 F.3d at 1193 ("[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record."). "The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine" whether the Commissioner's decision is "supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required." Sorenson v. Weinberger , 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). "If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, " the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler , 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) ("Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.") (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch , 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[1]

I. The ALJ's Step Three Determination

At step three of the sequential disability evaluation process, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant's impairments to see if they meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in the Listings. See 20 C.F.R § 416.920(d); Tackett v. Apfel , 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If any of the claimant's impairments meet or medically equal a listed impairment, he or she is deemed disabled. Id . The burden of proof is on the claimant to establish he or she meets or equals any of the impairments in the Listings. See Tacket , 180 F.3d at 1098. "A generalized assertion of functional problems, " however, "is not enough to establish disability at step three." Id . at 1100 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526).

A mental or physical impairment "must result from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which can be shown by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508, § 416.908. It must be established by medical evidence "consisting of signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings." Id .; see also Social Secuirty Ruling ("SSR") 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 *2 (determination that is conducted at step three must be made on basis of medical factors alone). An impairment meets a listed impairment "only when it manifests the specific findings described in the set of medical criteria for that listed impairment." SSR 83-19, 1983 WL 31248 *2.

An impairment, or combination of impairments, equals a listed impairment "only if the medical findings (defined as a set of symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings) are at least equivalent in severity to the set of medical findings for the listed impairment." Id .; see also Sullivan v. Zebley , 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990) ("For a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.") (emphasis in original). However, "symptoms alone" will not justify a finding of equivalence. Id . The ALJ also "is not required to discuss the combined effects of a claimant's impairments or compare them to any listing in an equivalency determination, unless the claimant presents evidence in an effort to establish equivalence." Burch v. Barnhart , 400 F.3d 676, 683 (9th Cir. 2005).

The ALJ need not "state why a claimant failed to satisfy every different section of the listing of impairments." Gonzalez v. Sullivan , 914 F.2d 1197, 1201 (9th Cir. 1990) (finding ALJ did not err in failing to state what evidence supported conclusion that, or discuss why, claimant's impairments did not meet or exceed Listings). This is particularly true where, as noted above, the claimant has failed to set forth any reasons as to why the Listing criteria have been met or equaled. Lewis v. Apfel , 236 F.3d 503, 514 (9th Cir. 2001) (finding ALJ's failure to discuss combined effect of claimant's ...


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