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Schelin v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

February 11, 2015

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


FRED VAN SICKLE, District Judge.

THIS MATTER comes before the Court based upon cross motions for summary judgment. Plaintiff Anthony W. Schelin is represented by Dana C. Madsen. Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin is represented by Franco L. Becia.


On July 11, 2012, Anthony W. Schelin applied for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied both his initial application and his request for reconsideration. Mr. Schelin asked for a hearing. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held one on March 21, 2013. Mr. Schelin represented himself. On April 15, 2013, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Mr. Schelin asked the Appeals Council to review the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council declined to do so. At that point, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. Mr. Schelin commenced this action. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Both he and the Commissioner move for summary judgment.


Anthony W. Schelin was born on February 13, 1973. (Tr. 39.[1]) His father played no part in his life. (Tr. 267.) He lived with his mother, who was an alcoholic. (Tr. 48, 267.) She abused him emotionally, physically, and sexually; expelling him from their home when he was about 13 years old. Id. From then on, he was forced to fend for himself. He began committing serious crimes, including the sexual abuse of a young child. (Tr. 49.) His life was painful. On more than one occasion, he attempted to commit suicide. (Tr. 41, 49-50.) Little changed when he reached adulthood. He continued to commit serious crimes, which resulted in repeated periods of imprisonment. (Tr. at 40, 49-51.) Most recently, he was sentenced to prison for possession of a stolen vehicle. (Tr. 40.) While in prison, he again attempted to commit suicide. (Tr. 41.) As a consequence, he served most of his sentence in the prison's mental health unit. (Tr. 41, 267.) From time to time, he was evaluated by psychiatrists, who prescribed a variety of medications. (Tr. 42.) In Mr. Schelin's opinion, the medications did little to combat his depression and anxiety. Id. He was released from prison during the summer of 2011. Between then and the summer of 2012, he was evaluated by mental health professionals on a number of occasions. As explained above, Mr. Schelin applied for Title XVI SSI benefits on July 11, 2012. He alleges he has been disabled since July 1, 2006. An ALJ held a hearing on March 21, 2013, and the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 28, 2013.


A person is disabled "if he is 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). The SSA has established a five-step process for evaluating disability claims such as Mr. Schelin's. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ followed the specified process in arriving at an unfavorable decision.

A. Step One

A person who is engaged in substantial gainful activity is not eligible for SSI benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). Thus, at step one, Mr. Schelin had to show he had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the date upon which he applied for SSI benefits. Id. "Substantial gainful activity means work that... (a) [i]nvolves doing significant and productive physical or mental duties; and (b) [i]s done (or intended) for pay or profit." 20 C.F.R. § 416.910. Mr. Schelin carried his burden. (Tr. 25.) As a result, the ALJ proceeded to Step Two.

B. Step Two

At step two, the ALJ assessed the "medical severity" of Mr. Schelin's impairments. Mr. Schelin had to show he has "a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 416.909, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement[.]" 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is "severe" if it "significantly limits" the claimant's "physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). Absent a severe medically determinable impairment (or combination of impairments), the ALJ would have rejected Mr. Schelin's claim at step two. As it turned out, the ALJ determined Mr. Schelin has three severe impairments, viz., "personality disorder, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder." (Tr. 25.) Having determined Mr. Schelin is severely impaired, the ALJ proceeded to step three.

C. Step Three

At step three, the ALJ considered whether Mr. Schelin's impairments are so severe he is conclusively presumed to be disabled. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir.1998). Resolution of the issue turns upon whether Mr. Schelin has any impairment, or combination of impairments, that equals an impairment that is listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(iii), 416.925(a). See Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1194 (9th Cir.2004). SSA regulations state in pertinent part:

The Listing of Impairments (the listings) is in appendix 1 of subpart P of part 404 of this chapter. For adults, it describes for each of the major body systems impairments that... [the SSA considers] to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.

20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a). "When a claimant meets or equals a listing, he is presumed unable to work and is awarded benefits without a determination whether he actually can perform his own prior work or other work.'" Kennedy v. Colvin, 738 F.3d 1172, 1176 (9th Cir.2013) (quoting Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532, 110 S.Ct. 885, 107 L.Ed.2d 967 (1990)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at step three. See, e.g., Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir.2012). In this instance, the ALJ decided Mr. Schelin had not demonstrated he has either an impairment, or a combination of impairments, that equals an impairment that is listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Consequently, the ALJ concluded he had failed to establish a conclusive presumption of disability.

D. Step Four

At step four, the ALJ evaluated whether Mr. Schelin can perform his "past relevant work" given his "residual functional capacity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). The SSA defines "past relevant work" as work that "was done within the last 15 years, lasted long enough for you to learn to do it, and was substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 416.965(a). Mr. Schelin's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is the most he can do in a work setting despite his physical and mental limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1). In assessing Mr. Schelin's RFC, the ALJ had to consider "all of the relevant medical and other evidence." 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(3). The ALJ found Mr. Schelin's "medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms[.]" (Tr. 28.) Given that finding, the ALJ proceeded to "evaluate the intensity and persistence of [Mr. Schelin's] symptoms so... [he could] determine how [Mr. Schelin's] symptoms limit [his] capacity for work[.] 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(1). This necessitated a careful review of the record. Among other things, the ALJ considered both Mr. Schelin's statements and the opinions of John Arnold, Ph.D., an examining psychologist. The ALJ determined Mr. Schelin's statements concerning his restrictions are "not entirely credible, " and he assigned only "some weight" to Dr. Arnold's psychological assessments. After reviewing the record, the ALJ decided Mr. Schelin does not suffer from any exertional limitations, but he does suffer from nonexertional limitations:

Exertional limitations affect an individual's ability to meet the seven strength demands of the job: sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. Nonexertional limitations or restrictions affect an individual's ability to meet the other demands of jobs, and include mental limitations, pain limitations, and all physical limitations that are not included in the seven strength demands.

Social Security Regulation ("SSR") 96-4p, 1996 WL 374187, at *2 (SSA July 2, 1996). More specifically, the ALJ found:

"[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant should deal with things and not people. The claimant should not have contact with the public and should have limited contact ...

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