United States District Court, E.D. Washington
JEREMIAH L. HOKE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
FRED VAN SICKLE, Sr., District Judge.
BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 16 and 21. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was represented by Dana C. Madsen. Defendant was represented by Thomas M. Elsberry. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the court grants Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and denies Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.
Plaintiff Jeremiah L. Hoke protectively filed for disability insurance benefits on December 19, 2007 (Tr. 264-265), and supplemental security income ("SSI") on December 20, 2007 (Tr. 266-268). Plaintiff initially alleged an onset date of June 4, 2004 (Tr. 264, 266), but later amended the onset date to June 1, 2006 (Tr. 281). Benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 156-159, 162-165. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held before ALJ R.S. Chester on July 8, 2009. Tr. 43-81. Plaintiff was not represented by counsel and he testified at the hearing. Tr. 52-70. The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 132-146), but the Appeals Council remanded the case and directed the ALJ to consider the evidence de novo and conduct a new hearing (Tr. 151-154). This hearing was held before ALJ Moira Ausems on September 27, 2011. Tr. 82-127. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Tr. 93-115. Medical expert Anne E. Winkler, M.D. (Tr. 88-92), and vocational expert Daniel R. McKinney (Tr. 115-126) also testified. The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 20-36) and the Appeals Council denied review (Tr. 1). The matter is now before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STATEMENT OF FACTS
The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner, and will therefore only be summarized here.
Plaintiff was 28 years old at the time of the hearing. He completed eleventh grade. Tr. 117. Plaintiff's employment history includes work as a cook, dishwasher, customer assistance representative, janitor, and flagger/road maintenance worker. Tr. 59-65. Most recently, Plaintiff was employed as a cook at a fast food restaurant. Tr. 93. Plaintiff complains of constant pain in his mid and low back and shoulder; which he testifies prevents him from lifting, climbing stairs, walking more than a block at one time, standing for more than five minutes. Tr. 95-99. He also reported stomach pain two to three times a week at least; and diarrhea two to five times a week which requires him to go to the bathroom five to thirty times a day. Tr. 99-104. Plaintiff testified that he previously received counseling for depression and anxiety. Tr. 104-106.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited: the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed "only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error." Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158-59 (9th Cir.2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). "Substantial evidence" means relevant evidence that "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to "more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance." Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether this standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.
In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. If the evidence in the record "is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record." Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir.2012). Further, a district court "may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless." Id. at 1111. An error is harmless "where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination." Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).
FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered "disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be "unable 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be "of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920(a)(4) (i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(b); 416.920(b).
If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activities, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from "any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, " the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. Id.
At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to several impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a) (4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d); 416.920(d).
If the severity of the claimant's impairment does meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity." Residual functional capacity ("RFC"), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations (20 ...