United States District Court, E.D. Washington
NICOLE A. GROVE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER RE: MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
JUSTIN L. QUACKENBUSH, Senior District Judge.
BEFORE THE COURT are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF NO. 15 & 16). Plaintiff is represented by attorney Lora Lee Stover. Defendant is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Pamela J. DeRusha and Special Assistant United States Attorney Nancy A. Mishalanie. This matter was previously before Magistrate Judge John T. Rodgers. The final briefing deadline was March 3, 2014, and oral argument was not requested. The case was reassigned to the undersigned for all further proceedings on March 5, 2014. The court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefs. The matter was taken under submission by Order of March 19, 2014.
This court's role on review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is limited. The court reviews that decision to determine if it was supported by substantial evidence and contains a correct application of the law. Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009). This court is obligated to affirm the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and the reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110-11 (9th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.
I. JURISDICTION/PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff, Nicole A. Grove, applied for supplemental security income benefits on June 17, 2010, when she was 35 years-old. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff requested a hearing and a hearing was held on December 22, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge James Sherry. (Transcript of hearing at ECF No. 12-2, p. 49-84). On January 26, 2012, the ALJ issued an opinion denying benefits. (ECF No. 12-2 at 24-42). Plaintiff appealed that decision to the Appeals Council and on June 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review. ( Id. at 1). The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed the instant action on August 12, 2013.
II. SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
The Social Security 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 claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if the impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering claimant's age, education and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).
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; Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987):
Step 1: Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activities? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If she is, benefits are denied. If she is not, the decision maker proceeds to step two.
Step 2: Does the claimant have a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant 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.
Step 3: Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.
Step 4: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work she has performed in the past? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the inquiry proceeds to the fifth and final step.
Step 5: Is the claimant able to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education and work experience? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).
The initial burden of proof rests upon the Plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971). The initial burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. The burden then shifts to the Commissioner to show (1) that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity and (2) that a "significant number of jobs exist in the national economy" which claimant can perform. Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th Cir. 1984).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
"The [Commissioner's] determination that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and the [Commissioner] applied the proper legal standards." 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, 601-602 (9th Cir. 1989). "It means such relevant 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. Celebrezze, 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). This court may set aside a denial of benefits only if the basis for denial is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 ...