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Baugh v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

November 30, 2017




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 15, 19. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Justin James Baugh (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay 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 applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on September 5, 2012, Tr. 174, alleging disability since June 30, 2010, Tr. 154-61, due to mental health issues, acid reflux, and anxiety. Tr. 177. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 104-10, 113-19. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Moira Ausems held a hearing on February 3, 2015 and heard testimony from Plaintiff and vocational expert, Diane Kramer. Tr. 42-72. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on May 4, 2015. Tr. 20-31. The Appeals Council denied review on August 3, 2016. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's May 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 September 30, 2016. ECF Nos. 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 36 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 154. He completed the twelfth grade in 1993, Tr. 178, and completed one quarter of community college, Tr. 55. His reported work history includes the positions of general laborer and dishwasher. Tr. 48-50, 178. At filing, Plaintiff reported that he stopped working in May of 2012 due to his conditions. Tr. 177. However, at the hearing, Plaintiff testified that his work in 2012 was actually a work assessment arranged by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and, that following the assessment, he withdrew from the program. Tr. 47-48. Prior to the 2012 work assessment, Plaintiff was engaged in temporary work in 2010. Tr. 48-49.


         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 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. §§ 404.1520(a), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On May 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 30, 2010, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 22.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder; panic disorder with agoraphobia; generalized anxiety disorder; methamphetamine, benzodiazepine, and alcohol dependence in reported remission; tachycardia; hypothyroidism; obesity; and left carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. 22.

         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. 23.

         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:

[T]he claimant can occasionally lift and carry up to 20 pounds and frequently lift and carry up to 10 pounds. He can stand and walk for up to 6 hours in an 8-hour day, and sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour day. No more than occasional crawling and no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; avoid concentrated exposure to industrial vibration; no exposure to unprotected heights or dangerous moving machinery; no commercial driving; no more than lower semiskilled (SVP-3) tasks; no more than brief superficial interaction with the general public; and no cooperative teamwork endeavors with coworkers.

Tr. 24-25. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as heating and air conditioning helper, laborer, and kitchen helper and concluded that Plaintiff was not able to perform this past relevant work. Tr. 29.

         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 office cleaner I, electrical assembler, and production assembler. Tr. 30. The ALJ thus concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from June 30, 2010 through the date of the ALJ's decision, May 4, 2015. Id.


         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 consider Plaintiff's symptom ...

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