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Sampson v. Berryhill

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

February 13, 2018

SVEN E. SAMPSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY APPEAL

          MARY ALICE THEILER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sven E. Sampson proceeds through counsel in his appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is AFFIRMED.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1962.[1] He has a college degree and a master's degree in business administration, with additional training as a pharmacy technician, and has worked as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force and a pharmacy technician. (AR 257-58, 269, 437.)

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in December 2012. (AR 243-44.) That application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 155-57, 159-60, 164-65.)

         On December 9, 2013, ALJ Joanne Dantonio held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff, Plaintiff's wife, a medical expert (ME), and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 34-75.) On March 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 12-26.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 13, 2014 (AR 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court, which reversed the Commissioner's decision and remanded for further administrative proceedings. (AR 885-95.) The ALJ held another hearing on September 21, 2016, taking testimony from Plaintiff, Plaintiff's wife, and a VE. (AR 809-49.) On January 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 786-803.) Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision.

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the adjudicated period, from April 25, 2012, through June 30, 2012 (the date last insured (DLI)). (AR 789.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found that through the DLI, Plaintiff's traumatic brain injury, cognitive disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, status-post lumbosacral fusion, and percutaneous discectomies with back and neck pain were severe. (AR 789-92.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that through the DLI, Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 792-93.)

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing light work, with additional exceptions: he should never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and never bend or stoop. He can have no more than frequent exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. He can perform simple, routine tasks “that are considered low stress work in a low-stress environment with no fast-paced production demands.” (AR 794.) He can have occasionally contact with co-workers, but no teamwork. He can have occasional contact with supervisors, but no contact with the public. With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform past relevant work. (AR 799-800.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the assistance of a VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to other representative occupations, including assembler - electrical accessories, printed circuit board pre-assembler, and mail clerk. (AR 800-02.)

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) applying res judicata to prior final administrative decisions; (2) discounting his own subjective testimony; (3) discounting his wife's statements; and (4) assessing certain medical evidence and opinions.[2] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         Res judicata

         Plaintiff previously filed DIB applications that were denied by ALJ decisions in 2009 and 2012, and Plaintiff did not appeal those decisions. (AR 786.) Those decisions were therefore administratively final, and the earliest Plaintiff could have been found disabled under the current decision was April 25, 2012, the day after the most recent prior decision became administratively final. (AR 786-87.) In the current decision, the ALJ explained that because Plaintiff had changed age categories since his last administratively final ALJ decision, he had overcome the presumption of continuing non-disability. (AR 787.)

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in failing to address all of the evidence in the record, specifically opinions written years before the beginning of the adjudicated period, due to a misapplication of the res judicata doctrine. Dkt. 11 at 4-5. Plaintiff does not directly explain how or why this purported error is connected to the doctrine of res judicata; instead, it appears, as noted by the Commissioner, that the ALJ did not address evidence that predates the adjudicated period ...


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