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Koenig v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eastern District of Washington

November 6, 2014

GARY L. KOENIG, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant

For Gary Leonard Koenig, Plaintiff: Donald Charles Bell, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Bell Law Firm PLLC, Wenatchee, WA.

For Carolyn W Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant: Pamela Jean DeRusha, LEAD ATTORNEY, U S Attorney's Office - SPO, Spokane, WA; Thomas M Elsberry, Social Security Administration - OGC, Seattle, WA.

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

Fred Van Sickle, Senior United States District Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 15 and 22. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was represented by Donald C. Bell. 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 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.

JURISDICTION

Plaintiff Gary L. Koenig protectively filed for disability insurance benefits on January 24, 2011 (Tr. 242-243), and supplemental security income (" SSI") on January 26, 2011 (Tr. 244-249). Plaintiff alleged an onset date of September 11, 2007. Tr. 242, 244. Benefits were denied initially (Tr. 192-195) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 198-201). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (" ALJ"), which was held before ALJ Marie Palachuk on August 8, 2012. Tr. 64-103. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. Medical experts Donna M. Veraldi, Ph.D. and Harvey Alpern, M.D. testified. Tr. 70-78. Vocational expert K. Diane Kramer also testified. Tr. 97-102. The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 7-28) 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 51 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 79. He completed his GED. Tr. 80. Plaintiff's most recent employment was stacking apple boxes in a packing house. Tr. 83-84. Plaintiff testified that previous employment included seasonal work as a bailer at a floral place (Tr. 86), seasonal work at a fish hatchery (Tr. 86-88), and a fire protection helper (Tr. 89-90). Previous to these jobs Plaintiff worked in the logging industry for 10-15 years. Tr. 84-85. Plaintiff claims disability based on scoliosis, COPD, hypertension, back and neck problems, anger and concentration. Tr. 198. He testified that he has dull throbbing pain on a daily basis; GERD; and trouble sleeping. Tr. 91-96. He experiences side effects from his medication including drowsiness. Tr. 92. Plaintiff testified he has not walked more than 50-60 feet in two or three years, and cannot lift. Tr. 93.

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, 129 S.Ct. 1696, 173 L.Ed.2d 532 (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 C.F.R. § § 404.1545(a)(1); 416.945(a)(1)), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (" past relevant work"). 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(f); 416.920(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education and work experience. Id. If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § § 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, the analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. Id.

The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. 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. ...


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