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Tokarz v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 6, 2017




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 14, 15. Attorney Randi L. Johnson represents Damen Lee Tokarz (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Leisa A. Wolf represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 4. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REMANDS the matter to the Commissioner for additional proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on February 8, 2015, alleging disability since August 13, 2011, Tr. 190, due to degenerative disc disease, arthritis in the back, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), knee pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, and numbness/burning/tingling sensations in his limbs, Tr. 262.[1] The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 139-141, 145-147. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) R.J. Payne held a hearing on January 21, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical experts, Lynne Jahnke, M.D. and Margaret Moore, Ph.D., and vocational expert K. Diane Kramer. Tr. 35-89. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 1, 2016. Tr. 17-28. The Appeals Council denied review on May 5, 2016. Tr. 1-4. The ALJ's February 1, 2016 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 June 29, 2016. ECF No. 1, 5.


         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 30 years old at the alleged onset date. Tr. 190. Plaintiff completed the twelfth grade and was in the military from February 2002 to November 2010. Tr. 263. He attempted to work as a meter reader from July to August of 2011. Id. He reported that he stopped working August 13, 2011 due to his conditions. Tr. 262.


         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. Perales, 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 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. § 404.1520(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. § 404.1520(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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).


         On February 1, 2016, 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 August 13, 2011, the alleged onset date. Tr. 19.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity; mild degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine; depressive disorder; PTSD; personality disorder; and substance dependence. Tr. 19.

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

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