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McClure v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

January 17, 2018

TROY LEWIS MCCLURE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Stanley A. Bastian, United States District Judge

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 12 and 13. The motions were heard without oral argument.

         Plaintiff brings this action challenging the denial of disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13, and denies Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 12.

         ADMINISTRATIVE PROCEEDINGS

         Troy McClure protectively filed an application for supplemental security income on October 24, 2011, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2003. AR 226-231. His application was denied initially on October 24, 2011, and upon reconsideration on June 6, 2012. AR 143-146. Thereafter, Mr. McClure filed a written request for hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). AR 147.

         ALJ Marie Palachuk held a video hearing on August 21, 2013 (the “first hearing”). AR 108. At the hearing, Mr. McClure amended the alleged onset date of disability to October 24, 2011. Id. ALJ Palachuk issued a decision on September 9, 2013, finding Mr. McClure ineligible for disability benefits. AR 105-128. The Appeals Council granted Mr. McClure's request for review and remanded the case back to ALJ Palachuk for a second hearing. AR 129.

         Pursuant to the remand order, ALJ Palachuk held a second video hearing on October 7, 2015 (the “second hearing”). AR 20. ALJ Palachuk issued a decision on October 28, 2015, again finding Mr. McClure ineligible for disability benefits. AR 17-44. The Appeals Council denied Mr. McClure's request for review. AR 1-6.

         Mr. McClure timely filed the present action challenging the denial of disability benefits pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). ECF No. 1.

         SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability 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). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant's impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering claimant's age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner of Social Security has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant meets the definition of disabled under the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006).

         At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). Substantial gainful activity is defined as significant physical or mental activities done or usually done for profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the individual is engaged in substantial gainful activity, he or she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1571. If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment, or combination of impairments, that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments, he or she is not disabled. If the ALJ finds the claimant does have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the ALJ proceeds to step three.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether any of the claimant's severe impairments “meets or equals” one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be sufficiently severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526; 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1 (“the Listings”). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is per se disabled and qualifies for benefits. If not, the ALJ proceeds to the fourth step.

         Before considering step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). An individual's residual functional capacity is his or her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). In making this finding, the ALJ must consider all of the relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3).

         At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's residual functioning capacity allows the claimant to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, he or she is not disabled. If the ALJ finds the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth and final step.

         At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, taking into account claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). To meet this burden, the Commissioner must establish (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); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 388-89 (9th Cir. 2012).

         STANDARD

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under section 405(g) is limited, and the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole or if the ALJ applied the wrong legal standard.” Shaibi v. Berryhill, 870 F.3d 874, 878 (9th Cir. 2017). “Substantial evidence” is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1121 (9th Cir. 2012). “The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C § 405(g).

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). 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 reasonable dawn from the record.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111.

         Moreover, a district court “may not reverse and 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. The burden of showing an error is harmful generally falls upon the party appealing the ALJ's decision. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The facts of this case are set forth in detail in the transcript of the proceedings, and accordingly, are only briefly summarized here. Troy McClure was born on August 28, 1968. He was forty-seven years old at the time of the second hearing before ALJ Palachuk. Mr. McClure has a high school diploma, and his previous work experience includes work as a material handler, industrial cleaner, furniture assembler, sand blaster, cook helper, and kitchen helper. Due to physical and mental health issues, Mr. McClure has been unable to sustain competitive employment on a regular and continuing basis since October 2011.

         ALJ PALACHUK'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Mr. McClure has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since October 24, 2011, the alleged onset date of disability (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq). AR 23.

         At step two, the ALJ found Mr. McClure had the following severe impairments: obesity; non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus; neuropathy; lumbar degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; pain disorder; intermittent explosive disorder; and polysubstance dependence in sustained full remission (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)). AR 23.

         At step three, the ALJ found Mr. McClure does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926). AR 24.

         Before reaching step four, the ALJ found Mr. McClure has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with the following limitations:

• Mr. McClure can occasionally perform postural activities but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
• Mr. McClure must avoid all exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous moving machinery;
• Mr. McClure can understand, remember, and carry out simple and routine tasks and instruction involving up to three-step commands;
• Mr. McClure is able to maintain attention and concentration for two-hour intervals between regularly scheduled breaks;
• Mr. McClure can adapt to no more than seldom changes in the work routine and will require ten percent more time than average employee to adapt to those changes when they occur;
• Mr. McClure should perform decision-making on no more than a seldom basis;
• Mr. McClure should perform work dealing with things rather than people; and
• Mr. McClure can perform work in an essentially isolated environment with only occasional supervision and no ...

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