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Matthews v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

November 13, 2017

OLETA MATTHEWS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 16, 22

          Fred Van Sickle Senior United States District Judge.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 16, 22. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Howard Olinsky. Defendant was represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney L. Jamala Edwards. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. 16, is granted and Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 22, is denied.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Oleta Matthews protectively filed for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on July 31, 2012. Tr. 266-76, 319. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of January 1, 2010. Tr. 266, 273. Benefits were denied initially (Tr. 169-72) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 183-84). Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on June 18, 2014. Tr. 42-83. On November 21, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim (Tr. 24-33), 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 are therefore only summarized here.

         Oleta Matthews (“Plaintiff) was 60 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 42. She went to school through the ninth grade. Tr. 42. She was in special education most of her life. Tr. 61. She lives with a number of family members. Tr. 65. Her work history includes: home attendant, janitor, laundry worker, nurse assistant, and child monitor. Tr. 49. She last worked as a babysitter for her niece. Tr. 50.

         Plaintiff testified she has pain on her left side from her neck to her shoulder and in her middle back, lower back, and on the ball of her left foot. Tr. 52, 55-56. She also has pain in her right hand. Tr. 52-53. She testified pain limits her ability to throw, pull, grip, and reach. Tr. 52-53, 56. She can stand or sit for about 10 minutes at a time. Tr. 53, 64. She spends almost half the day reclining. Tr. 54. She has hepatitis C. Tr. 52. Plaintiff uses inhalers a few times per week for COPD. Tr. 56. She experiences shortness of breath upon standing. Tr. 57. She can walk about a block and a half to two blocks. Tr. 57.

         She experiences depression, though medication has helped. Tr. 56, 63. She has anxiety when she is around people. Tr. 57-58. She has quit jobs in the past due to arguments with coworkers. Tr. 59-60. She has difficulty focusing while reading and doing chores. Tr. 60-61.

         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 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. §§ 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); 416.920(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2010, the alleged onset date. Tr. 26. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance addiction disorder. Tr. 26. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination ...


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