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Weers v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

October 7, 2014

KATHY M. WEERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

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

FRED VAN SICKLEM, District Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 17 and 18. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was represented by Joseph M. Linehan. Defendant was represented by Nicole A. Jabaily. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the court grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.

JURISDICTION

Plaintiff Kathy M. Weers protectively filed for supplemental security income ("SSI") on February 15, 2008. Tr. 267-271. Plaintiff initially alleged an onset date of February 15, 2000 (Tr. 267), but amended the alleged onset date to February 15, 2008 at the supplemental hearing (Tr. 104). Benefits were denied on May 21, 2008. Tr. 156-160. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), which was held before ALJ Marie Palachuk on March 4, 2010. Tr. 53-100. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. Medical experts Ollie D. Raulston, Jr., M.D. and Ronald Klein, Ph.D. Tr. 59-72. Plaintiff's sister Leona McCauley and vocational expert Sharon N. Welter also testified. Tr. 85-98. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 23, 2010. Tr. 132-150. On July 15, 2011 the Appeals Council remanded the case with instructions to grant Plaintiff's request for a supplemental hearing, obtain evidence from a vocational expert if necessary, and reevaluate the RFC. Tr. 153-154. A supplemental hearing was held before ALJ Marie Palachuk on January 24, 2012. Tr. 101-129. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and appeared at the hearing. Id. Medical expert Ronald Klein, Ph.D. and vocational expert Thomas Polsin testified at the hearing. Tr. 106-128. The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 21-45) 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 39 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 72-73. She has a high school diploma and was in special education. Tr. 73. Plaintiff has three children, but the oldest child does not live with her. Tr. 81. She previously worked as a fast food cook. Tr. 73-76. Plaintiff testified that she has back pain; migraine headaches; depression and anxiety; and numbness and inability to grip in both hands. Tr. 77-80. She can only sit for half an hour; stand for 10 minutes at a time; walk a block at a time; lift five pounds maximum; use the railing not to lose balance on the stairs; and cannot straighten up after bending over. Tr. 83-85. Plaintiff testified that she gets assistance from her sister and brother in taking her kids to school, cooking, shopping, and managing finances. Tr. 81-83.

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 ...


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