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Maxwell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

December 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Theresa L. Fricke, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff has brought this matter for judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of his application supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds the decision to deny benefits should be affirmed.


         On April 8, 2013, plaintiff filed an application for SSI benefits, alleging he became disabled beginning May 10, 2008. Dkt. 12, Administrative Record (AR) 12. Mr. Maxwell sustained a head injury due to a car accident on January 12, 2008 that resulted in post-concussive symptoms. AR 532-538, 543-549. His application for benefits was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ), at which plaintiff appeared and testified as did a vocational expert. AR 35-161.

         In a written decision dated June 26, 2015, the ALJ found that plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as well as other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that he was not disabled. AR 12-28. Plaintiff's request for review was denied by the Appeals Council, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner, which plaintiff then appealed in a complaint filed with this Court on January 26, 2017. AR 1; Dkt. 3; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.

         Plaintiff seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings, arguing the ALJ erred:

(1) in failing to find plaintiff's post-concussive syndrome was a severe impairment;
(2) in failing to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence; and
(3) in failing to properly assess plaintiff's residual functional capacity.

         For the reasons set forth below, however, the Court disagrees that the ALJ erred as alleged, and therefore affirms the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits.


         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld if the “proper legal standards” have been applied, and the “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991). “A decision supported by substantial evidence nevertheless will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.” Carr, 772 F.Supp. at 525 (citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Sers., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)). 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) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at The Commissioner's findings will be upheld “if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193. Substantial evidence requires the Court to determine whether the Commissioner's determination is “supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” that decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). That is, “[w]here there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, ” the Court “must affirm the decision actually made.” Allen, 749 F.2d at 579 (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).

         I. The ALJ's Step Two Determination

         The Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step thereof, the disability determination is made at that step, and the sequential evaluation process ends. Id. At step two of the evaluation process, the ALJ must determine if an impairment is “severe.” Id. An impairment is “not severe” if it does not “significantly limit” a claimant's mental or physical abilities to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii); Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-3p, 1996 ...

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