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Michaels v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 17, 2015

STEVE I. MICHAELS 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 United States District Judge

BEFORE THE COURT are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Ct. Rec. 14, 20.) Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents plaintiff; Special Assistant United States Attorney Franco L. Becia 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 Steve I. Michaels (plaintiff) protectively filed for supplemental security income (SSI) on June 14, 2011. (Tr. 179, 211.) Plaintiff alleged an onset date of October 17, 2000.[1] (Tr. 179.) Benefits were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 108, 115.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ), which was held before ALJ Marie Palachuk on December 5, 2012. (Tr. 37-80.) Plaintiff was not represented by counsel but testified at the hearing. (Tr. 50-68.) Medical expert Dr. Darius Ghazi, vocational expert Kimberly Mullinax, and plaintiff’s sister Debra Harkins also testified. (Tr. 45-49, 69-78.) The ALJ denied benefits (Tr. 21-30) 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 born on June 30, 1959 and was 53 years old at the time of the hearing. (Tr. 76.) He graduated from high school and attended some college. (Tr. 51.) He has a certificate for motorcycle repair. (Tr. 51.) He was in a work-related motor vehicle accident in 2000 and sustained a significant injury to his cervical spine. (Tr. 46.) At the time of the accident, he was working at freight loading and unloading for a beverage company. (Tr. 52.) He had an L&I claim and received permanent partial disability. He has other work experience sharpening saw blades. (Tr. 53-54.) Plaintiff testified he cannot work because his hands and feet tingle and go numb a lot. (Tr. 58.) This occurs two to three times per week, depending on what he is doing. (Tr. 59.) His hands bother him more than his feet. (Tr. 60.) He has problems with his low back. (Tr. 61.) If he exerts himself, his back might feel fine but two days later he cannot do anything. (Tr. 58.) Sometimes he cannot move. (Tr. 58.) He used to be a very active person. (Tr. 58.) He cannot have any pressure on his back. (Tr. 59.) His neck is sore every day and there is a constant grinding and popping. (Tr. 62-64.) Sometimes there is sharp pain when he pops it. (Tr. 63.) He cannot lift his head up at all. (Tr. 63.) Heat is the only thing that helps. (Tr. 64.) He had surgery on both shoulders. (Tr. 64.) Reaching above his head is difficult. (Tr. 64.) He has chronic headaches. (Tr. 66.)

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. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). At this ...


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