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Wolf v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 8, 2015

ALEX WOLF, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

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

FRED VAN SICKLE, Senior District Judge.

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Ct. Rec. 15, 20.) Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents plaintiff; Special Assistant United States Attorney Diana Andsager represents defendant. After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the court GRANTS plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

JURISDICTION

Plaintiff Alex Wolf (plaintiff) protectively filed for supplemental security income (SSI) and disability income benefits (DIB) on September 13, 2012. (Tr. 39, 196, 203, 240.) Plaintiff alleged an onset date of September 1, 2009. (Tr. 39, 196, 293.) Benefits were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 149, 152, 158, 160.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), which was held before ALJ Lori L. Freund on July 29, 2013. (Tr. 31-62.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. (Tr. 40-77.) Vocational expert Thomas Polsin also testified. (Tr. 77-87.) The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 9-22) and the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1.) The matter is 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 transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of plaintiff and the Commissioner, and will therefore only be summarized here.

Plaintiff was 42 years old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 76.) He has a GED and took some college classes for computer web design. (Tr. 68.) He has work experience as an apartment manager, auto repair service estimator, and a locksmith. (Tr. 79.) He testified that anxiety is his biggest problem. (Tr. 45.) He sometimes has shortness of breath and chest pain due to anxiety. (Tr. 75.) He has ADHD. (Tr. 48.) He has difficulty being around others. (Tr. 53.) He has depression. (Tr. 69.) He sometimes stays in bed for a couple of days at a time. (Tr. 69.) Plaintiff testified his low back, mid-back, and neck hurt. (Tr. 71.) He has muscle spasms between his shoulders. (Tr. 72.) Working with his right arm causes his back to go out. (Tr. 72.) Walking causes his low back to hurt. (Tr. 72.) He gets tension headaches a couple of times per week. (Tr. 71.) He has pain in his knees that feels like burning under his knee caps. (Tr. 73.) He has restless legs and has difficulty sleeping more than four or five hours. (Tr. 74-75.) He has a tumor in his pituitary gland that affects his growth hormones. (Tr. 75-76.) Plaintiff testified he has been clean and sober since 2007. (Tr. 49.) He was living in his car at the time of hearing. (Tr. 53.)

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 the 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 claimant 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, 601-602 (9th Cir. 1989); Desrosiers v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988). Substantial evidence "means such relevant 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. Celebrezze, 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. Sec'y of Health and Human Serv., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). 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).

SEQUENTIAL 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 12 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 his impairments are of such severity that plaintiff is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering plaintiff's age, education and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful 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 claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Step one determines if he or she is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I), 416.920(a)(4)(I).

If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activities, the decision maker proceeds to step two and determines whether the claimant has a medically severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant 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 the claimant'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)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant 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 the claimant from performing work he or she has performed in the past. If plaintiff is able to perform his or her previous work, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), ...


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