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Leach v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

January 6, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JOHN T. RODGERS, Magistrate Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 16, 17. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Plaintiff, and Special Assistant United States Attorney Christopher J. Brackett represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 10. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


On April 18, 2011, Plaintiff filed both a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. Tr. 22; 216. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning June 30, 2001. Tr. 22; 195. Plaintiff reported that she was unable to work due to back problems, surgeries, arthritis, depression, and mental issues. Tr. 195. Also, on the application she stated that she stopped working so she could raise her son. Tr. 195. Plaintiff's claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Tr. 22; 72-156.

On March 5, 2012, Administrative Law Judge Marie Palachuk presided over a hearing at which medical expert Marian F. Martin, Ph.D., medical expert Darius Ghazi, M.D., vocational expert Deborah LaPoint, and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, testified. Tr. 39-71. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to April 18, 2011. Tr. 44. On April 4, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 22-34. The Appeals Council declined review. Tr. 1-4. The instant matter is before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


The facts have been presented in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties and, thus, they are only briefly summarized here. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was thirty-eight years old, and lived with her boyfriend and his son. Tr. 56; 186. She was divorced and had one adult child. Tr. 56-57. Plaintiff obtained a GED, and she attended one year at Apollo College, where she studied to be a veterinary assistant. Tr. 56-57. In the past, Plaintiff worked at various call centers, at the Humane Society, and as a manual laborer. Tr. 57-58.

At the hearing, Plaintiff said her back pain is severe and her abdomen hurts. Tr. 59. She said her sleep is interrupted after just a few hours because of back pain. Tr. 60. She said she can walk about one block, stand for about ten minutes, and she can sit for about 20 minutes before she starts experiencing pain. Tr. 61-62.

Plaintiff testified that she is able to clean the dishes and run the laundry. Tr. 64. She spends most of her day lying down, watching television or reading. Tr. 64-65.


The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable construction of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). 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. 1988). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987).


The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-99. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents him from engaging in his previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot do his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work; and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy which claimant can perform. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of "disabled" is made. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I-v), 416.920(a)(4)(I-v).


At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 18, 2011, her amended onset date. Tr. 24. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of neck and back strain, morbid obesity, somatoform disorder, depressive disorder, prescription drug abuse and personality disorder. Tr. 25. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). Tr. 25. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform light work with some non-exertional limitations. Tr. 27. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work. Tr. 33. The ALJ determined that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers that Plaintiff can perform, such as production assembler, agricultural produce sorter, and cannery worker. Tr. 33-34. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the amended onset date through the date of the decision. Tr. 34.


Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by: (1) failing to provide legally sufficient reasons for giving little weight to the opinion of examining physician Dennis R. Pollack, Ph.D.; (2) giving great weight to the opinion of non-examining physician Marian F. Martin, Ph.D.; (3) failing to credit the GAF scores assessed by Family Services of Spokane; and (4) failing to file ...

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