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Olson v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 4, 2014

TERRY LEE OLSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

JAMES P. HUTTON, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 18, 19. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents plaintiff (Olson). Special Assistant United States Attorney L. Jamala Edwards represents defendant (Commissioner). The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court grants defendant's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 19.

JURISDICTION

Olson protectively applied for disability income benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) on June 2, 2009 alleging disability beginning July 1, 2008 (Tr. 281-85, 281-85). His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration (Tr. 164-72). Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Gene Duncan held a hearing January 19, 2011 (Tr. 43-86). After the ALJ's adverse decision (Tr. 41-86), the Appeals Council ordered remand on January 11, 2012 (Tr. 161-62).

A second hearing following remand was held July 24, 2012 before ALJ Duncan (Tr. 89-138). He issued an unfavorable decision August 30, 2012 (Tr. 20-35). May 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review (Tr. 1-6). On July 11, 2013, Olson appealed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g). ECF No. 1, 5.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

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

Olson was 42 years old at onset and 47 at the second hearing. He has a ninth grade education and earned a GED. He has worked as a carpenter, and last worked in 2008. He alleges memory problems. He is limited by problems with his neck, back and joints. He has hepatitis C and fatigue. Olson experiences cramping in his hands, as well as problems with dexterity, sensation and swelling. He is unable to walk very far. Lifting, standing and bending are limited. He can sit for 20 minutes. He does not drive because his license is suspended. He quit taking illegal drugs in 2007 or 2008 (Tr. 41, 44-45, 90-98).

SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

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).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of a Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A Court must uphold a Commissioner's decision, made through an ALJ, when the determination is not based on legal error and is supported by substantial evidence. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). "The [Commissioner's] determination that a plaintiff is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence." Delgado v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 570, 572 (9th Cir. 1983) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n 10 (9th Cir. 1975), but less than a preponderance. McAllister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 601-02 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence "means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citations omitted). "[S]uch inferences and conclusions as the [Commissioner] may reasonably draw from the evidence" will also be upheld. Mark v. Celebreeze, 348 F.2d 289, 293 (9th Cir. 1965). On review, the Court considers the record as a whole, not just the evidence supporting the decision of the Commissioner. Weetman v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 20, 22 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting Kornock v. Harris, 648 F.2d 525, 526 (9th Cir. 1980)).

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 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. 1987). Thus, if there is substantial evidence to support the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence that will support a finding of either disability or nondisability, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987).

ALJ'S FINDINGS

ALJ Duncan found Olson was insured through June 30, 2009 (Tr. 21, 23). At step one, he found Olson did not work at substantial gainful activity levels after onset (Tr. 24). At steps two and three, he found Olson suffers from cervical degenerative disc disease (DDD) at C5-6 and C6-7, lumbar age-appropriate changes, hepatitis C, depressive disorder and personality disorder, impairments that are severe but do not meet or medically equal a Listed impairment (Tr. 23). The ALJ found Olson less than fully credible, a finding he does not directly challenge on appeal (Tr. 26-27). The ALJ assessed an RFC for a range of light work (Tr. 25). At step four, he relied on the vocational expert and found Olson is unable to do any past relevant work (Tr. 33). At step five, again relying on the VE, the ALJ found Olson can do other work such as small products assembler and hand packager. Accordingly, the ALJ found Olson is not disabled as defined by the Act (Tr. 34-35).

ISSUES

Olson alleges the ALJ erred when he weighed the evidence of mental and physical limitations. ECF No. 18 at 9-12. The Commissioner responds that the ALJ's findings are factually supported and free of harmful ...


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