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Smith v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 11, 2017

Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Stanley A. Bastian United States District Judge

         Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 11, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13. The motions were heard without oral argument. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion, grants Defendant's motion, and affirms the administrative law judge (ALJ).

         I. Jurisdiction

         On August 9, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits, and also filed a supplemental security income (SSI) application. Plaintiff alleged that she is disabled, beginning August 30, 2008, due to irritable bowel syndrome; autism; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); gluten intolerance; generalized anxiety disorder; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD); stress fractures in both legs; left shoulder injury; and brain injury and seizures.

         Her applications were denied initially on December 10, 2012 and again denied on reconsideration on February 28, 2011. A request for a hearing was made on March 31, 2013. On December 9, 2014, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing in Spokane, Washington before ALJ Jesse Shumway. Vocational Expert (VE) Sharon Welter participated, as did Medical Expert (ME) Dr. Minh Vu, and ME Dr. Nancy Winfrey. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Lora Lee Stover. Ms. Stover represents Plaintiff at this Court.

         The ALJ issued a decision on January 28, 2015, finding that Plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, and denying benefits. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on May 17, 2016. The Appeals Council's denial of review makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 42 U.S.C. §405(h).

         Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on July 14, 2016. The instant matter is before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Social Security 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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if his impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering claimant'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).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987).

         Step One: Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay and requires compensation above the statutory minimum. 20 C.F.R. § 416.972(a); Keyes v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1053, 1057 (9th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is engaged in substantial activity, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.971. If she is not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         Step Two: Whether the claimant has a medically-severe impairment or combination of impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. A severe impairment is one that lasted or must be expected to last for at least 12 months and must be proven through objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.909. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step Three: Whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d); 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.

         Before considering Step Four, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). An individual's residual functional capacity is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.

         Step Four: Whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing work she has performed in the past. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the evaluation proceeds to the fifth and final step.

         Step Five: Whether the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett v. Apfel, 108 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. Id. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity. Id.

         III. Standard of Review

         The Commissioner's determination will be set aside only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), but “less than a preponderance.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n. 10 (9th Cir. 1975). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court must uphold the ALJ's denial of benefits if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the decision of the administrative law judge. Batson v. Barnhart, 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). But “[i]f the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019.

         A decision supported by substantial evidence will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). An ALJ is allowed “inconsequential” errors as long as they are immaterial to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).

         IV. Statement of Facts

          The facts have been presented in the administrative transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs to this Court; only the most relevant facts are summarized here. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was thirty-four years old. Plaintiff has a high school degree and has attended college but did not obtain a degree. She has past relevant work as a nurse assistant; laborer; sales clerk; data entry clerk; gate guard; and forest firefighter. She has not worked since August, 2008.

         Plaintiff testified that she served in the United States military and received an honorable discharge after working primarily as a data entry clerk. While in the military, Plaintiff revealed her gender identity concerns and was discharged. She began gender reassignment with a civilian endocrinologist in 2009. Subsequently, Plaintiff attended college at Eastern Washington University until there was an issue with her financial aid. She had ...

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