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Clark v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

December 4, 2017

JOANNA J. CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTIONFORSUMMARY JUDGMENTANDGRANTING DEFENDANT'SMOTION FOR SUMMARYJUDGMENT ECF Nos. 14, 15

          Van Sickle Senior United States District Judge

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 15. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff was represented by attorney Dana Madsen. Defendant was represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. 14, is denied and Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 15, is granted.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Joanna J. Clark protectively filed for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) on September 5, 2012. Tr. 147-55, 193. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of December 31, 2004. Tr. 147, 152. Benefits were denied initially (Tr. 105-11) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 117-20). Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on December 2, 2014. Tr. 34-61. On January 9, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff s claim (Tr. 12-27), 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.

         Joanna J. Clark (“Plaintiff) was 49 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 50. She graduated from high school and attended a “little bit” of college. Tr. 36, 50. She has spent most of her working life doing part-time jobs such as waitress and convenience store clerk. Tr. 36, 48. She testified that she has lost jobs because she cannot concentrate, does not comprehend well, and does not get along well with other people. Tr. 41. She last worked as a baker. Tr. 39. She was fired from the bakery because she asked the same questions over and over and had to stand for too long. Tr. 48. She has not attempted to get a job since 2013 because she “can't concentrate that well” and has “really bad back pain.” Tr. 40.

         Plaintiffs back pain originated with a motor vehicle accident in August 2013, although she alleged at the hearing that she also suffers from scoliosis and that her back pain started “a couple years ago.” Tr. 41-42. If she stands too long, there is a burning sensation in the middle of her back and her leg goes numb. Tr. 42. Her right hip feels like it's going to give out. Tr. 43-44. She cannot do chores because her back hurts. Tr. 44. Plaintiff testified she also has headaches which are improved with medication and rest. Tr. 47-48.

         Plaintiff testified her mental health problems involve anxiety and mood swings. Tr. 46. She cannot sleep sometimes due to anxiety. Tr. 45. Her moods change frequently from happy to down and depressed within ten to 15 minutes. Tr. 47. She does not like being around people and experiences anxiety when going to a store. Tr. 47.

         Plaintiff has a history of substance abuse, but testified that she had not used cocaine in over a year. Tr. 39. The last time she used was a week-long relapse. Tr. 46. She testified that before the relapse, she had been clean for a couple of years after treatment. Tr. 46.

         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. §§ 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 ...


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