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Gosvener v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 30, 2017

ADAM GOSVENER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 14, 16

          MARY K. DIMKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 16. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 9. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion (ECF No. 14) and grants Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 16).

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         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. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). 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 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. §§ 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work “exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1560(c)(2); 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         “A finding of ‘disabled' under the five-step inquiry does not automatically qualify a claimant for disability benefits.” Parra v. Astrue, 481 F.3d 742, 746 (9th Cir. 2007) (citing Bustamante v. Massanari, 262 F.3d 949, 954 (9th Cir. 2001)). When there is medical evidence of drug or alcohol addiction, the ALJ must determine whether the drug or alcohol addiction is a material factor contributing to the disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(a), 416.935(a). In order to determine whether drug or alcohol addiction is a material factor contributing to the disability, the ALJ must evaluate which of the current physical and mental limitations would remain if the claimant stopped using drugs or alcohol, then determine whether any or all of the remaining limitations would be disabling. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1535(b)(2), 416.935(b)(2). If the remaining limitations would not be disabling, drug or alcohol addiction is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability. Id. If the remaining limitations would be disabling, the claimant is disabled independent of the drug or alcohol addiction and the addiction is not a contributing factor material to disability. Id. Plaintiff has the burden of showing that drug and alcohol addiction is not a contributing factor material to disability. Parra, 481 F.3d at 748.

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income benefits and disability insurance benefits on May 30, 2012. Tr. 144-51. He alleged an onset date of October 10, 2007, Tr. 144-51, which was subsequently amended to December 1, 2009. Tr. 43-44. The applications were denied initially, Tr. 96-104, and on reconsideration, Tr. 108-15. Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 10, 2014. Tr. 37-59. On January 23, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 10-36.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 1, 2012. Tr. 16. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: polysubstance dependence; cognitive disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; depressive disorder; and a history of carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post bilateral releases. Tr. 16. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments, including substance use disorder, meet Medical Listings 12.02, 12.04, and 12.09. Tr. 17. The ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped substance use, his impairments would be severe but would not meet or medically equal the requirements of any listed impairment. Tr. 23-24. The ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped substance abuse, he would have the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant would be limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that did not require the need to make judgments on complex work-related decisions. The claimant would work best with only superficial contact with the general public but could have occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors. The claimant would need additional time to respond to changes in a routine work setting.

Tr. 25.

         At step four, the ALJ found that if Plaintiff stopped substance use, he would be unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 25. At step five, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded there are jobs in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as agricultural produce sorter, cannery worker, blender-tank tender helper, and assembler. Tr. 31. The ALJ found substance abuse disorder is thus a contributing factor material to the disability determination. Tr. 31. On that basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff is not disabled as defined by the Act because substance abuse renders him ineligible for benefits. Tr. 31-32.

         On April 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review, Tr. 1-7, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 422.210.

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying him disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplement security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. ECF No. 14. Plaintiff raises the following issues for review:

1. Whether the ALJ properly considered Listing 12.05C;
2. Whether the ALJ properly found Plaintiff's ankle impairment as non-severe at step two;
3. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence;
4. Whether the ALJ properly weighed Plaintiff's symptom claims; and
5. Whether the ALJ's step five findings are supported by ...

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