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Keenan v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 15, 2014

GERALYN M KEENAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

ROBERT H. WHALEY, District Judge.

Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 14, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 16. The motions were heard without oral argument. Plaintiff is represented by Lora Lee Stover. Defendant is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Pamela De Rusha and Special Assistant United States Attorney Catherine Escobar.

I. Jurisdiction

On October 21, 2009, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for Disability insurance benefits (DIB) and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income (SSI). Plaintiff alleged she had been disabled beginning March 7, 2009.

Her application was denied initially on August 21, 2007, [1] and again denied on reconsideration on May 4, 2010. A timely request for a hearing was made. On March 10, 2011, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing in Spokane, Washington before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palalchuk. Dr. R. Thomas Knight, medical expert and K. Diane Kramer, vocational expert, also participated. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Lora Lee Stover.

The ALJ issued a decision on April 22, 2011, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied her request for review on October 26, 2012. The Appeals Council's denial of review makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §405(h).

Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on November 26, 2012. The instant matter is before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

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). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if her impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do her 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).

The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); 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). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay and requires compensation above the statutory minimum. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574; Keyes v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1053, 1057 (9th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is engaged in substantial activity, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571. If he is not, the ALJ 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). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. A severe impairment is one that lasted or must be expected to last for at least 12 months and must be proven through objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1508-09. 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. Id. 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). If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the ALJ 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).

If the claimant is found disabled, and there is medical evidence of a substance use disorder, the ALJ must determine if the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.935(a). In making this determination, the ALJ evaluates the extent to which the claimant's mental and physical limitations would remain if the claimant stopped the substance abuse. § 416.935(b). If the remaining limitations would not be disabling, the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, and the claimant is not disabled. § 416.935(b)(I). If the remaining limitations are disabling, the claimant is disabled independent of his or her drug addiction or alcoholism and the alcoholism or addiction is not a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. § 416.935(b)(ii).

The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett v. Apfel, 108 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. Id. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity. Id.

III. Standard of Review

The Commissioner's determination will be set aside only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing 42.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla, " Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), but "less than a preponderance." Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court must uphold the ALJ's denial of benefits if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the decision of the administrative law judge. Batson v. Barnhart, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). "If the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ." Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019.

A decision supported by substantial evidence will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). An ALJ is allowed "inconsequential" errors as long as they are immaterial to the ultimate nondisability ...


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