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Wheeler v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 25, 2017

JACK R. WHEELER, Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 16, 17. Attorney Lora Lee Stover represents Jack R. Wheeler (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey E. Staples represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on June 8, 2012, Tr. 267, alleging disability since July 1, 1991, Tr. 223-229, due to an LI compression fracture, depression, three crushed discs in his back, carpal tunnel in his right wrist, a broken right toe, a torn meniscus in the right knee, a broken ankle, pins in his wrist, anxiety, a broken leg, and a broken shoulder that did not heal properly. Tr. 271. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 147-150, 154-156. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Donna L. Walker held a hearing on October 2, 2014 and took testimony from Plaintiff, vocational expert, Daniel McKinney, and medical expert, Anthony Francis, M.D. Tr. 57-87. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged date of onset to the date of application, June 8, 2012. Tr. 59. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on November 3, 2014. Tr. 31-43. The Appeals Council denied review on March 29, 2016. Tr. 1-7. The ALJ's November 3, 2014 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on May 25, 2016. ECF No. 1, 4.


         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties. They are only briefly summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 44 years old at the date of application. Tr. 223. Plaintiff received his GED in 1986 and attended some community college ending in 2005. Tr. 272. He reported his work history as a greenhouse worker, laborer, and landscape foreman. Id. Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on July 1, 2005 due to his conditions. Tr. 271.


         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The Court reviews the ALJ's determinations of law de novo, deferring to a reasonable interpretation of the statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson v. Per ales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097. If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987). 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. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988).


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-1099. This burden is met once the claimant establishes that physical or mental impairments prevent him from engaging in his previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot do his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, and (2) specific jobs exist in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Batson v. Comm 'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (9th Cir. 2004). If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of "disabled" is made. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On November 3, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 8, 2012, the date of application. Tr. 33.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: LI compression fracture; right carpal tunnel syndrome; right toe fracture; right ankle fracture; leg fracture; shoulder fracture; depression; and anxiety. Tr. 33.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 34.

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs residual function capacity and determined he could perform a range of ...

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