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Sterkel v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 1, 2017

KENWORTH STERKEL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL PREVIOUSLY CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROBERT H. WHALEY Senior United States District Judge

         Before 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.

         I. Jurisdiction

         Mr. 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.

         A 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.

         Mr. 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).

         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), 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).

         The 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 Cir. 2006).

         Step 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.

         Step 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 step.

         Step 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.

         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.

         Step 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. 2012).

         III. Standard of Review

         A 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. 1989)).

         In 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).

         IV. Statement of Facts

         The 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.

         V. The ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ 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.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Sterkel had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2008 (citing 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...


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