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Evans v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 18, 2014

AARON EVANS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


ROBERT H. WHALEY, District Judge.

Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 16, 19. D. James Tree represents Plaintiff Catherine M. Williams. Assistant United States Attorney Pamela J. DeRusha and Special Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay represent the Defendant Commissioner of Social Security (the "Commissioner"). Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Commissioner's final decision, which denied his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"), a period of disability, and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the Court is now fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Plaintiff's Motion for Summary judgment, and directs entry of judgment in favor of Plaintiff.

I. Jurisdiction

Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and period of disability on August 27, 2008 and for SSI on September 2, 2008, alleging disability beginning on April 30, 2007. Tr. 19. After benefits were denied initially on April 1, 2009, and upon reconsideration on September 25, 2009, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (hereafter "ALJ"). Tr. 19. Plaintiff appeared with counsel via video conference from Kennewick, Washington, and testified at a hearing held November 18, 2010 with the ALJ in Spokane, Washington. Tr. 16-37. ALJ, Marie Palachuk, presided over the hearing. Tr. 16. In addition, impartial medical experts, Daniel Wiseman, M.D., and R. Thomas McKnight, Ph.D., testified along with impartial vocational expert, K. Diane Kramer. Tr. 19. The ALJ issued a decision denying benefits on December 3, 2010. Tr. 19-37. Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied review on March 10, 2012, which made the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision and subject to judicial review. Tr. 1-5. Thus, Plaintiff's claims are properly 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if his 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 established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920; Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 114 (9th Cir. 2006).

Step 1: Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activities? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay and requires compensation above the statutory minimum. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1574, 416.972; 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, 416.920(b). 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), 416.920(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, 416.908-09. 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), 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1 ("the Listings"). 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), 416.920(e). If the claimant is able to perform his 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 his age, education, and work experience? 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f).

The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four as detailed above. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d at 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012); Lockwood v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 616 F.3d 1068, 1071 (9th Cir. 2010). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work "exists in significant numbers in the national economy." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c); 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 1203, 1206 (9th Cir. 2012).

Additionally, Plaintiff has the burden of showing that drug and alcohol addiction ("DAA") is not a contributing factor material to disability. Ball v. Massanari, 254 F.3d 817, 823 (9th Cir.2001). The Social Security Act bars payment of benefits when drug addiction and/or alcoholism is a contributing factor material to a disability claim. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(C) and 1382(a)(3)(J); Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949 (9th Cir. 2001); Sousa v. Callahan, 143 F.3d 1240, 1245 (9th Cir.1998). If there is evidence of DAA and the individual succeeds in proving disability, the Commissioner must determine whether DAA is material to the determination of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535 and 416.935. If an ALJ finds that the claimant is not disabled, then the claimant is not entitled to benefits and there is no need to proceed with the analysis to determine whether substance abuse is a contributing factor material to disability. However, if the ALJ finds that the claimant is disabled, then the ALJ must proceed to determine if the claimant would be disabled if he or she stopped using alcohol or drugs.

III. 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, and 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 1144, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir.1997) (citation omitted). In determining whether this standard has been satisfied, "a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.'" Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted).

In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). 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, 674 F.3d at 1111. Further, a district court "may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless." Id. An error is harmless "where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination." Id. at 1115 (internal 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).

IV. Statement of Facts

The facts of the case are set forth in detail in the transcript of proceedings, and only briefly summarized here. Plaintiff was born on March 22, 1972, and was 35 years-old as of his alleged onset date of disability. Tr. 373. At the hearing, Plaintiff testified he was living with his wife and her two children. Tr. 91. Plaintiff stopped attending school in the 9th grade, but did later obtain a GED. Tr. 83; 88. Plaintiff testified that he was physically and sexually abused at age five, and also witnessed domestic violence involving his mother (who also suffered from substance abuse issues). Tr. 83-84. Plaintiff indicated that on one occasion he saw his mother shoot her then boyfriend, in Plaintiff's presence, at approximately age five. Id.

Plaintiff alleges he is unable to work due to mental impairments, specifically paranoia, not wanting to leave his bedroom, and feeling worthless. Tr. 86-88. Plaintiff reports abusing alcohol beginning at the age of 12 and having issues with drugs up until about two years before the hearing date. Tr. 84; 333.

Plaintiff's past relevant work includes: kitchen helper, material handler, paper inserter, and general laborer. Tr. 94. Most recently, Plaintiff worked at Shari's Restaurant as a dishwasher from June 2006 - April 2007. Tr. 94; 246. Plaintiff ceased working after about 6-8 months on the job, either as a result ...

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