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Cotter v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 15, 2017

CHAD D. COTTER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Fred Van Sickle, Senior United States District Judge

         BEFORE 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.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff 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).

         BACKGROUND

         The 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.

         Chad D. 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A 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.

         In 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).

         FIVE-STEP SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A 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).

         The 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).

         If the 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).

         At step 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. §§ 404.1520(d); 416.920(d).

         If the 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.

         At step 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.

         At step 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. ยงยง 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting ...


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