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Bliessner v. Colvin

United States District Court, Eastern District of Washington

May 4, 2015

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



BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 18. Attorney Christopher H. Dellert represents Joseph Bliessner (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Benjamin J. Groebner represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. 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.


Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on November 29, 2010, alleging disability beginning February 1, 2009. Tr. 206-18. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 150-53, 156-57. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) R.J. Payne held a hearing on March 26, 2012, at which Plaintiff (appearing without counsel) testified, as did consulting physician William Spence, M.D., and psychologist Margaret Moore, Ph.D. Tr. 49-97. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on October 26, 2012. Tr. 25-42. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-4. The ALJ’s October 2012 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on October 1, 2014. ECF No. 1, 3.


The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ’s decision, and the briefs of the parties. They are only briefly summarized here.

Plaintiff was 33 years old at the time he filed his DIB and SSI applications. Tr. 43. Plaintiff graduated from high school and worked for a number of years as a kitchen steward at an assisted living facility and as a dishwasher at a retirement home. Tr. 83, 88.

At the administrative hearing, Plaintiff stated that he can’t work because of his depression. Tr. 85. Plaintiff also complained of severe allergies, acid reflux and mild kyphosis, and migraine headaches. Tr. 257. Plaintiff stated that he has a hard time coping with stress, Tr. 257, and has problems understanding instructions, Tr. 262.

Plaintiff reported that he spent most of his time helping his mother with chores around the house, surfing the internet, watching about one hour of television a day, and taking his dog outside. Tr. 89-92, 258-61. Plaintiff also stated that he played pool with a friend about once a month, but has no other social activities other than group treatment at Spokane Mental Health. Tr. 93.

Plaintiff has a history of regular alcohol use starting when he was 17 years old. Tr. 531. At the March 2012 hearing, Plaintiff reported that he stopped drinking alcohol in January 2012 and had completed thirty days of treatment just prior to the hearing. Tr. 72.


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 Court reviews the ALJ’s determinations of law de novo, deferring to a reasonable interpretation of the 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. Comm’r of Soc. 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, 140-142 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon claimants to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-1099. This burden is met once claimants establish that physical or mental impairments prevent them from engaging in their previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If claimants cannot do their past relevant work (PRW), the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimants can make an adjustment to other work, and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy which claimants can perform. Batson v. Comm’r of Soc. ...

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