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Thompson v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 13, 2017



          Stanley A. Bastian United States District Judge

         Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 14. The motions were heard without oral argument. Plaintiff is represented by Michael G. Thompson, and Defendant is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Timothy M. Durkin and Special Assistant United States Attorney Justin L. Martin. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion, and grants Defendant's motion.


         On August 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of January 7, 2008. Plaintiff, with the advice of counsel, amended her alleged disability onset date to February 1, 2011.

         Plaintiff's application was denied initially on October 2, 2012, and on reconsideration on February 14, 2013. On September 4, 2014, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held in Spokane, Washington before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk. The ALJ issued a decision on November 4, 2014, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on March 30, 2016. The Appeals Council's denial of review makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on May 23, 2016. The matter is before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         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). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if her impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do her previous work, but cannot, considering claimant's age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987).

         Step 1: Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activities? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay and requires compensation above the statutory minimum. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1574; Keyes v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1053, 1057 (9th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is engaged in substantial activity, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571. If she is not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         Step 2: Does the claimant have a medically-severe impairment or combination of impairments? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. A severe impairment is one that lasted or must be expected to last for at least 12 months and must be proven through objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step 3: Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. Id. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.

         Before considering Step 4, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). An individual's RFC is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.

         Step 4: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work she has performed in the past? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant can perform her previous work, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the evaluation proceeds to the fifth and final step.

         Step 5: Is the claimant able to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience? 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett v. Apfel, 108 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. Id. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity. Id.

         Standard of Review

         The Commissioner's determination will be set aside only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), but “less than a preponderance.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court must uphold the ALJ's denial of benefits if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the decision of the ALJ. Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). The Court reviews the entire record. Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). “If the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019.

         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. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). An ALJ is allowed “inconsequential” errors as long as they are immaterial to the ultimate nondisability determination. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Statement of Facts

         The facts have been presented in the administrative transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs to this Court; only the most relevant facts are summarized here. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was fifty-seven years old. Plaintiff is married and does not have any children under the age of eighteen. She lives in a home with her husband of over thirty-three years, has a high school education, and can read. Plaintiff owned and managed a business before closing it. Following that, she worked as a census taker, assistant manager, and bookkeeper.

         While working as an assistant manager Plaintiff injured her left shoulder. The injury, cumulative in nature, occurred on the job while loading fifty-pound feed sacks on January 7, 2008. Following the injury, Plaintiff had three surgeries on her left shoulder. Eugene Pontecorvo, D.O., orthopedic surgeon and Plaintiff's treating physician, performed all three left shoulder surgeries on Plaintiff, the last of which was conducted in 2010.

         On September 9, 2012, Plaintiff made the following representations, among others, in a Social Security Administration Function Report: (1) Plaintiff is right hand dominant; (2) Plaintiff is in pain due to her left shoulder injury; (3) Plaintiff's pain partially inhibits her ability to perform household chores; (4) Plaintiff's pain partially inhibits her ability to perform workplace duties; (5) Plaintiff's pain limits her to approximately nine holes of golf rather than eighteen; (6) Plaintiff is able to garden and perform outdoor tasks such as raking, shoveling, and harvesting; (7) Plaintiff is able to prepare basic meals and groom without assistance, daily; (8) Plaintiff is able to socialize weekly with friends; (9) Plaintiff is able to pay bills; (10) Plaintiff hired house cleaners to help with household ...

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