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Brown v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

August 17, 2017

TERRY BROWN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES P. DONOHUE, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Terry Brown appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) that denied his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-83f, after a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons set forth below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On his protective filing date, Plaintiff was a 56-year-old man with a high school diploma and a two-year college degree in technical illustration. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 549-50. His past work experience includes employment as a electronics purchasing agent, assembler, and parts stocker; car salesperson; retail clerk; bank loan processor; and food bank aide. AR at 184, 196. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2009. AR at 196.

         In November 2010, Plaintiff protectively filed a claim for SSI payments, alleging an onset date of April 17, 2009. AR at 161-67, 230. Plaintiff asserts that he is disabled due to back pain and depression. See, e.g., AR at 222.

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 96-103, 107-14. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on March 1, 2012. AR at 39-66. On March 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on his finding that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work, as well as specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 22-34. Plaintiffs administrative appeal of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-6, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff sought judicial review in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, which granted the parties' stipulation to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings. AR at 596, 602-03. The ALJ held a second hearing on May 14, 2015. AR at 534-65. On June 26, 2015, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. AR at 477-490. The Appeals Council found no reason to assume jurisdiction (AR at 464-73), and Plaintiff timely filed a complaint in this court. Dkt. 1, 3.

         II. JURISDICTION

         Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.

         IV. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         As the claimant, Mr. Brown bears the burden of proving that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or is 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 is disabled under the Act only if his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098-99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         The Commissioner has established a five step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to be disabled at any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need to consider subsequent steps. Step one asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[1] If he is, disability benefits are denied. If he is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that he has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to determine whether the impairment meets or equals any of the listed impairments described in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required twelve-month duration requirement is disabled. Id.

         When the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the Commissioner must proceed to step four and evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether he can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he is not disabled; if the opposite is true, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099, 1100. If the Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded.

         V. DECISION BELOW

         On June 26, 2015, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 18, 2010, the application date.
2. The claimant's back disorder, obesity, and depression are severe impairments.
3. The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
4. The claimant has the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c). The claimant can have frequent interaction with the general public, co-workers, or supervisors. His job tasks should not include directing others. He is able to deal with routine workplace stressors and to make routine workplace decisions generally associated with occupations with an specific vocational preparation (“SVP”) of 1-3. He is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple and detailed tasks and instructions generally required by occupations with an SVP of 1-3.
5. The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a retail sales clerk, and, in the alternative, can perform other jobs that exist in significant ...

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