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Kinkeade v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

February 20, 2018




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 14. Attorney Christopher H. Dellert represents Richard Todd Kinkeade (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Michael S. Howard 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 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 April 11, 2013, Tr. 231, alleging disability since January 31, 2012, Tr. 188, 190, due to a back condition, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, essential tremor, left leg nerve damage, high blood pressure, agoraphobia, social phobia, and a cholesterol condition, Tr. 235. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 145-49, 153-59. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Caroline Siderius held a hearing on August 11, 2015 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, psychological expert, Thomas McKnight, Ph.D., and vocational expert, Jeffrey Tittelfitz. Tr. 38-92. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on September 16, 2015. Tr. 10-22. The Appeals Council denied review on March 20, 2017. Tr. 1-4. The ALJ's September 16, 2015 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 May 22, 2017. 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 48 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 188. He completed three years of college in 1985. Tr. 236. His work history includes the jobs driver/machine operator, manual laborer, and real estate appraiser. Tr. 236, 251. Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on October 15, 2012 due to his conditions, but had made changes to his work activities because of his conditions as early as January 1, 2001. Tr. 236.


         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. §§ 404.1520(a), 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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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, 1193-94 (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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On September 16, 2015, 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 31, 2012, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 12.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, and mental impairments described as panic disorder and mood disorder.” Tr. 13.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the ...

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