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Daugherty v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

February 12, 2018




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 15, 25. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Lafe Edward Daugherty (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Summer Stinson 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 November 22, 2013, Tr. 75, alleging disability since January 1, 2008, Tr. 167, 173, due to seizures, depression, a back injury, epilepsy, and polymicrogyria. Tr. 214. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 102-09, 113-23. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Donna L. Walker held a hearing on January 20, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert, Ronald Devere, M.D., and vocational expert, Richard Cheney. Tr. 39-74. At the hearing, the ALJ granted Plaintiff's motion to withdraw his Request for Hearing on the DIB claim. Tr. 41-42. The DIB claim was dismissed and the hearing continued as an SSI only claim with an application date of November 22, 2013.[1] Id. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February 8, 2016. Tr. 23-24. The Appeals Council denied review on September 28, 2016. Tr. 1-7. The ALJ's February 8, 2016 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 November 21, 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 39 years old at the date of application. Tr. 167. He completed the twelfth grade in 1992. Tr. 215. His reported work history includes the jobs of inspector and machine operator. Tr. 197, 215. Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on January 1, 2008 due to his conditions. Tr. 214.


         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, 1229-30 (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. § 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (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 1098-99. 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. § 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 which the claimant can perform exist in the national economy. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On February 8, 2016, 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 January 3, 1999, the original alleged date of onset. Tr. 25.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had a severe impairment of “history of a seizure disorder.” Tr. 25.

         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. 28.

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual function capacity and determined he could perform a range of work at the medium exertional level with the following limitations:

the ability to lift and/or carry up to 50 pounds occasionally (1/3 of the workday) and 25 pounds frequently (2/3 of the workday); stand and/or walk up to 6 hours; and sit up to 6 hours. He has an unlimited ability to use bilateral upper extremities for pushing and pulling (other than as stated for lifting and carrying); unlimited ability to reach in all directions, including overhead bilaterally; unlimited use of bilateral hands for handling (gross manipulation), fingering (fine manipulation), and feeling (skin receptors); unlimited postural ability to balance, stoop (including bending at the waist), kneel or crouch (including bending at the knees) and frequently climb ramps, stairs, or crawl but never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; unlimited visual and communicative abilities; unlimited environmental exposure to exposure to [sic.] extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, humidity, noise, fumes, odors, dusts, gases, or poor ventilation but should avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards (such as machinery and heights). He can have superficial contact with the general public, could work in proximity to but not close cooperation with co-workers and supervisors, and would work best in a job with routine predictable tasks with clearly set goals and expectation.

Tr. 28-29. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have past relevant work. Tr. 32.

         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 pile setter[2], store laborer, and janitor. Tr. 33. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from January 3, 1999, through the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 33.


         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 make a proper step two determination, (2) failing to make a proper step three determination, (3) failing to properly weigh Plaintiff's symptom statements, and (4) failing to properly weigh the medical opinions in the record.

         1. Step Two

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's step two determination alleging that she erred by finding Plaintiff's mental health impairments and back/lumbar ...

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