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Coumont v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 14, 2017




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 14, 16. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Matthew Adam Coumont (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Richard M. Rodriguez represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS, in part, 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 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on June 7, 2012, Tr. 159, alleging disability since May 1, 2010, Tr. 144, due to neuropathy in his legs and deafness in his right ear. Tr. 163. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 92-95, 102-105. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Donna L. Walker held a hearing on December 11, 2014 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical experts, Thomas McKnight, Ph.D. and James M. Haynes, M.D., and vocational expert, Thomas A. Polsin. Tr. 29-71. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 4, 2015. Tr. 11-25. The Appeals Council denied review on April 27, 2016. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's February 4, 2015 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 21, 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 42 years old at the date of application. Tr. 144. He completed the twelfth grade in 1988. Tr. 164. He reported upon application that he last worked in October of 2011 and stopped working due to his conditions. Tr. 163. His work history includes the job of carpenter/construction worker. Tr. 164, 179.


         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 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 February 4, 2015, 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 7, 2014, the date of application. Tr. 13.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the severe impairment of bilateral lower extremity peripheral neuropathy, secondary to possible acute alcohol abuse. Tr. 14.

         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. 17.

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual function capacity and determined he could perform a range of light work with the following limitations:

The claimant can lift or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk up to six hours in an eight hour day, and sit without limitation. The claimant has unlimited ability to push or pull notwithstanding his limitations in lifting and carrying. The claimant can frequently climb ramps and stairs, never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, but has no manipulative or visual limitations. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, vibration, hazards such as machinery and heights, and even moderate exposure to noise. The claimant has unlimited ability to work in an environment with heat, humidity, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation.

Tr. 18. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as construction worker and concluded that Plaintiff was not able to perform this work. Tr. 23.

         At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, and based on the testimony of the vocational expert, there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform, including the jobs of airline security representative, mailroom clerk, and storage rental clerk. Tr. 24. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the date of application, June 7, 2012, through the date of the ALJ's decision, February 4, 2015. Tr. 25.


         The question presented is whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision denying benefits and, if so, whether that decision is based on proper legal standards. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by (1) failing to properly weigh and consider the medical opinions in the record, (2) failing to find that Plaintiff's mental health impairments were severe at step two, (3) failing to properly ...

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