United States District Court, E.D. Washington
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
H. WHALEY Senior United States District Judge
the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment, ECF Nos. 13 & 14. Mr. Sterkel brings this
action seeking judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
405(g), of the Commissioner's final decision, which
denied his application for Disability Insurance Benefits
under Title II and his application for Supplemental Security
Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C
§§ 401-434, 1381-1383F. After reviewing the
administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the
Court is now fully informed. For the reasons set forth below,
the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for
Summary Judgment and DENIES Mr.
Sterkel's Motion for Summary Judgment.
Sterkel filed his application for Disability Insurance
Benefits on March 3, 2013, and his application for
Supplemental Security Income on July 23, 2013. AR 13,
211-217, 218-223. His alleged onset date is June 1, 2008, AR
13, 211, 218. Mr. Sterkel's applications were initially
denied on May 7, 2013, AR 131-33, and on reconsideration on
July 17, 2013, AR 135-36.
hearing with Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
Jesse Shumway occurred on April 17, 2015, AR 37-93.
On May 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Mr.
Sterkel ineligible for disability benefits. AR 10-25. The
Appeals Council denied Mr. Sterkel's request for review
on September 30, 2016, AR 1-4, making the ALJ's ruling
the “final decision” of the Commissioner.
Sterkel timely filed the present action challenging the
denial of benefits, on November 2, 2016. ECF No. 3.
Accordingly, Mr. Sterkel's claims are properly before
this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Sequential Evaluation Process
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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant shall
be determined to be under a disability only if the
claimant's 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
experience, engage in any other substantial gainful work that
exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§
423(d)(2)(A) & 1382c(a)(3)(B).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential
evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) & 416.920(a)(4);
Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th
one inquires whether the claimant is presently engaged in
“substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(b) & 416.920(b). Substantial
gainful activity is defined as significant physical or mental
activities done or usually done for profit. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1572 & 416.972. If the claimant is
engaged in substantial activity, he or she is not entitled to
disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 &
416.920(b). If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.
two asks whether the claimant has a severe impairment, or
combination of impairments, that significantly limits the
claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) &
416.920(c). A severe impairment is one that has lasted or is
expected to last for at least twelve months, and must be
proven by objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1508-09 & 416.908-09. If the claimant does not have a
severe impairment, or combination of impairments, the
disability claim is denied, and no further evaluative steps
are required. Otherwise, the evaluation proceeds to the third
three involves a determination of whether any of the
claimant's severe impairments “meets or
equals” one of the listed impairments acknowledged by
the Commissioner to be sufficiently severe as to preclude
substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526 & 416.920(d), 416.925,
416.926; 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1 (“the
Listings”). If the impairment meets or equals one of
the listed impairments, the claimant is per se
disabled and qualifies for benefits. Id. If the
claimant is not per se disabled, the evaluation
proceeds to the fourth step.
four examines whether the claimant's residual functional
capacity enables the claimant to perform past relevant work.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f) & 416.920(e)-(f).
If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, the
claimant is not entitled to disability benefits and the
inquiry ends. Id.
five shifts the burden to the Commissioner to prove that the
claimant is able to perform other work in the national
economy, taking into account the claimant's age,
education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1512(f), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c) &
416.912(f), 416.920(g), 416.960(c). To meet this burden, the
Commissioner must establish that (1) the claimant is capable
of performing other work; and (2) such work exists in
“significant numbers in the national economy.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(2); 416.960(c)(2);
Beltran v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 1203, 1206 (9th Cir.
Standard of Review
district court's review of a final decision of the
Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
scope of review under § 405(g) is limited, and the
Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if
it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on
legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1144,
1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing § 405(g)). Substantial
evidence means “more than a mere scintilla but less
than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d
978, 980 (9th Cir.1997) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala,
53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). In determining whether the Commissioner's
findings are supported by substantial evidence, “a
reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole
and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of
supporting evidence.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec.
Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting
Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir.
reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Matney v.
Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). If the
evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the
ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences
reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012); see
also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954
(9th Cir. 2002) (if the “evidence is
susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of
which supports the ALJ's decision, the conclusion must be
upheld”). Moreover, a district court “may not
reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is
harmless.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111. An error
is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the
[ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.”
Id. at 1115. The burden of showing that an error is
harmful generally falls upon the party appealing the
ALJ's decision. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S.
396, 409-10 (2009).
Statement of Facts
facts of the case are set forth in detail in the transcript
of proceedings, and only briefly summarized here. Mr. Sterkel
was 23 years old at the alleged date of onset. AR 23, 95,
103, 211, 218. He has at least a high school education. AR
23, 265, 432. Mr. Sterkel is able to communicate in English.
AR 23. He has a history of substance addiction stemming
primarily from cannabis and alcohol abuse. AR 21, 22, 107-08,
112, 120-21, 125-26, 432, 434. Mr. Sterkel previously worked
as a team leader, product specialist, laborer, and deli
associate. AR 23, 111, 125, 265, 279.
The ALJ's Findings
determined that Mr. Sterkel was not under a disability within
the meaning of the Act from June 1, 2008, his alleged date of
onset. AR 24.
step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Sterkel had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2008
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ ...