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Braesch v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

January 8, 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. 14, 15. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Plaintiff, and Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey E. Staples represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have 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 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


On January 10, 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. 15; 250. In both applications, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 30, 2009. Tr. 15; 209. Plaintiff reported that she was unable to work due to chronic pain, chronic migraines, depression, and a brain aneurysm. Tr. 220. The claims were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. Tr. 15; 99-160.

On November 14, 2012, Administrative Law Judge Marie Palachuk presided over a hearing and heard testimony from medical experts Alan J. Coleman, M.D. and Kent Layton, Ph.D., vocational expert Scott Whitmer, and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel. Tr. 36-76. On November 29, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 15-31. The Appeals Council declined review. Tr. 1-5. 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 35 years old, 5'4" tall, weighed 190 pounds, and she was living in a shelter, with two of her three children, ages 8 and 2. Tr. 59. Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed two years of college. Tr. 60.

Plaintiff's worked as a caregiver, but she said she stopped working in 2009 because of chronic migraines. Tr. 61. Plaintiff also worked at fast food restaurants, and as a telephone solicitor. Tr. 68; 71.

Plaintiff said she has migraines every day that last "[a]ll day long." Tr. 61. Plaintiff estimated that 20 days per month, her migraines are 10 out of 10 on the pain scale. Tr. 62. She said hydrocodone helped alleviate the migraines. Tr. 62. Plaintiff also testified that she has pain in her lower back, neck and hip, and once a month she develops a rash all over her hands, hips, and feet. Tr. 63-64.

In her adult disability report, Plaintiff indicated that she gets up in the morning, cares for the children and drives them to school. Upon her return, she lies down for much of the day, and sometimes performs household chores. Tr. 221. She grocery shops once a month for about an hour at a time. Tr. 223.


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 relevant evidence that 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 that 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 30, 2009, the alleged onset date. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of

[F]ibromyalgia versus chronic pain; headaches; obesity; mood disorder versus major depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; personality disorder with passive aggressive features; and polysubstance abuse of alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs.

Tr. 17.

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. 18. The ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work. Tr. 20. She is also limited to occasional public interaction, minimal coworker interaction, working independently with infrequent supervision, and she needs additional time to adapt to changes in the work setting/routine. Tr. 20. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 29. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, jobs exist in significant numbers that Plaintiff can perform, such as stuffer, surveillance system monitor ...

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