United States District Court, E.D. Washington
SONYA L. SEVERSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
ORDER ON MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
JAMES P. HUTTON, Magistrate Judge.
Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 14, 15. The motions were heard without oral argument. Plaintiff (Severson) is represented by Gary R. Penar. Defendant (Commissioner) is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Pamela De Rusha and Special Assistant United States Attorney Christopher John Brackett. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court grants plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 14.
Severson applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits in October 2010 and June 2011, respectively. She alleges she has been disabled since April 17, 2009 (Tr. 150-52, 153-60). Her applications were denied initially and again denied on reconsideration (Tr. 97-100, 102-04, 109-110, 112-13). Following her timely request, Severson appeared at a hearing on June 7, 2012 before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) James W. Sherry. Severson appeared with counsel. A vocational expert and Plaintiff's spouse, Ricky Severson, also participated (Tr. 33-63).
On July 12, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision (Tr. 12-25). Following Severson's timely request for review, the Appeals Council denied review on September 20, 2013 (Tr. 1-5). The Appeals Council's denial of review makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. § 405(h). Severson filed a timely appeal on November 18, 2012. The matter is before the Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ECF No. 1, 5.
II. SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
The Social Security Act (the 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 plaintiff shall be determined to be under a disability only if any impairments are of such severity that a plaintiff is not only unable to do previous work but cannot, considering plaintiff's age, education and work experiences, engage in any other substantial work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Thus, the definition of disability consists of both medical and vocational components. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).
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. Step one determines if the person is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If so, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404. 1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If not, the decision maker proceeds to step two, which determines whether plaintiff has a medially severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
If plaintiff 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, which compares plaintiff's impairment with a number of listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, plaintiff is conclusively presumed to be disabled. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step, which determines whether the impairment prevents plaintiff from performing work which was performed in the past. If a plaintiff is able to perform previous work that plaintiff is deemed not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At this step, plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) is considered. If plaintiff cannot perform past relevant work, the fifth and final step in the process determines whether plaintiff is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of plaintiff's residual functional capacity, age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); Bowen v . Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987).
The initial burden of proof rests upon plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971); Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999). The initial burden is met once plaintiff establishes that a mental or physical impairment prevents the performance of previous work. The burden then shifts, at step five, to the Commissioner to show that (1) plaintiff can perform other substantial gainful activity and (2) a "significant number of jobs exist in the national economy" which plaintiff can perform. Kail v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 1496, 1498 (9th Cir. 1984).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of a Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A Court must uphold a Commissioner's decision, made through an ALJ, when the determination is not based on legal error and is supported by substantial evidence. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985); Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). "The [Commissioner's] determination that a plaintiff is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence." 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, 601-02 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence "means such 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. Celebreeze, 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)(quoting Kornock v. Harris, 648 F.2d 525, 526 (9th Cir. 1980)).
It is the role of the trier of fact, not this Court, to resolve conflicts in evidence. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400. If evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987). Thus, if there is substantial evidence to support the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence that will support a finding of either disability or nondisability, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987).
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 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.
IV. STATEMENT OF FACTS
The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the decision below and the parties' briefs. They are only briefly summarized here and throughout this order as necessary to explain the Court's decision.
Severson was 49 years old at the hearing. She earned a GED and has worked as a banquet manager, nursing aide and office helper (Tr. 36-37, 56). She alleges she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a car accident in April 2009, and can no longer work as a result. She alleges she suffers mental limitations, headaches, back, neck and knee pain (Tr. 42, 172).
V. THE ALJ'S FINDINGS
The ALJ found Severson was insured through December 31, 2012 (Tr. 12, 14), meaning she must establish disability on or before that date to be eligible for disability insurance benefits.
At step one, the ALJ found Severson did not work at substantial gainful activity levels after the alleged onset date of April 17, 2009 (Tr. 14).
At steps two and three, the ALJ found Severson suffers from cervical degenerative spondylosis; lumbar degenerative disc disease; post-concussive syndrome; cognitive disorder NOS; cluster B features; affective disorder and anxiety disorder, impairments that are severe but do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. The ALJ considered impairments listed under section 1.00 ...