United States District Court, E.D. Washington
CHAD D. COTTER, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY
Van Sickle, Senior United States District Judge
THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary
judgment. ECF Nos. 13 and 14. This matter was submitted for
consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was
represented by Dana C. Madsen. Defendant was represented by
Terrye E. Shea. The Court has reviewed the administrative
record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully
informed. For the reasons discussed below, the court
GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment, ECF No. 14, and DENIES
Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13.
Chad D. Cotter protectively filed for disability insurance
benefits, and supplemental security income
(“SSI”), on April 16, 2012. Tr. 230-42. Plaintiff
alleged an onset date of June 30, 2010. Tr. 230, 237.
Benefits were denied initially (Tr. 141-47) and upon
reconsideration (Tr. 149-53). Plaintiff requested a hearing
before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which
was held before ALJ Caroline Siderius on January 8, 2015. Tr.
36-63. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at
the hearing. Id. Medical expert Margaret Moore,
Ph.D. also testified. Tr. 40-43. A subsequent hearing was
held on April 2, 2015; during which Plaintiff testified
again. Tr. 64-91. Medical expert Darius Ghazi, M.D., and
vocational expert Daniel R. McKinney, also testified. The ALJ
denied benefits (Tr. 17-35) and the Appeals Council denied
review. Tr. 1. The matter is now before this court pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 1383(c)(3).
facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing
and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of
Plaintiff and the Commissioner, and will therefore only the
most pertinent facts are summarized here.
Cotter (“Plaintiff”) was 36 years old at the time
of the first hearing. Tr. 44. Plaintiff finished high school,
and testified he was in special education “all the way
through” school, and primarily in spelling and reading.
Tr. 44-45. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff lived with
his mother, had no children, and did not leave the house very
often. Tr. 44, 54-55. He testified that he did a little bit
of vacuuming and cooking; did his own laundry; and his
friends took him to go grocery shopping. Tr. 53.
Plaintiff's work history since 1998 is almost exclusively
doing hard physical labor, such as: construction work of
various kinds; concrete foundations; and apprentice
electrician. Tr. 46-48, 283. In 2004, he was in a motorcycle
accident that resulted in a separation of his left shoulder.
See Tr. 354.
testified that he quit working in June 2010 due to pain
described by Plaintiff as “electricity going down both
legs” and an inability to lift his right arm. Tr.
48-49. However, as noted by the ALJ, the earliest medical
evidence during the adjudicatory period is Plaintiff's
office visit with Dr. Belinda Escanio in May 2011, nearly a
year after his alleged onset date of disability; during which
Plaintiff reported that he had not seen a doctor in 15 years
due to lack of insurance. Plaintiff alleges disability based
on degenerative disc disease, learning disorder, and rotator
cuff tendonitis with impingement. See Tr. 141. At
the first hearing, Plaintiff testified that he can only walk
100 feet at one stretch; stand for an hour at most; can only
pick up ten pounds at most; and his back starts to
“throb” after sitting for an hour. Tr. 48-51. He
also testified that he has to lay down for a total of six
hours a day, for one to two hours at a time; and only sleeps
for two hours a night due to pain. Tr. 52.
district court's review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is
limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed
“only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or
is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698
F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial
evidence” means “relevant evidence that a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and
citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence
equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less
than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and
citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has
been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire
record as a whole rather than searching for supporting
evidence in isolation. Id.
reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. If the
evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one
rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the
ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences
reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v.
Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a
district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision
on account of an error that is harmless.” Id.
An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to
the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.”
Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The
party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the
burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v.
Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).
SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered
“disabled” within the meaning of the Social
Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable 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);
1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be
“of such severity that he is not only unable to do his
previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education,
and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial
gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42
U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).
Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis
to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v);
416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers
the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is
engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the
Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b); 416.920(b).
claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the
analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner
considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If
the claimant suffers from “any impairment or
combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or
her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities,
” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If the claimant's
impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however,
the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c).
three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's
impairment to severe impairments recognized by the
Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from
engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the
impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the
enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the
claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§
severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or
exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the
Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's
“residual functional capacity.” Residual
functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the
claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work
activities on a sustained basis despite his or her
limitations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1);
416.945(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps
of the analysis.
four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the
claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing
work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant
work). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv);
416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing
past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f);
416.920(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such
work, the analysis proceeds to step five.
five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the
claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing
other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this
determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational
factors such as the claimant's age, education and past
work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v);
416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of
adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable
of adjusting ...