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Barrett 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 No. 14, 15. Attorney Dana Chris Madsen represents Christopher Westgate Barrett (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Franco L. Becia 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 briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on January 3, 2013, alleging disability since July 1, 2000, due to depression, deformed patellar tendon in right knee, slipped discs in back, pericarditis, personality disorder, dyslexia, ADD, and short term memory loss. Tr. 194, 198. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration.

         Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jesse K. Shumway held a hearing on July 29, 2015, Tr. 31-73, and issued an unfavorable decision on September 3, 2015, Tr. 11-21. The Appeals Council denied review on December 1, 2016. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's September 2015 decision thus 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 January 30, 2017. ECF No. 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 born on August 27, 1986, and was 14 years old on the alleged onset date, July 1, 2000, and 26 years old on the date the application for SSI was filed, January 3, 2013. Tr. 57, 194-196. He obtained a GED in 2007 and also completed specialized job training in truck driving in 2008. Tr. 199. Plaintiff testified at the administrative hearing that he last worked in 2011. Tr. 59. His disability report indicates he stopped working in December 2011 because of his condition(s). Tr. 199.

         Plaintiff stated he received mental health treatment from Frontier Behavioral Health about six months prior to the July 2015 administrative hearing but discontinued those services after only about a month because he was no longer experiencing symptoms of depression. Tr. 47. He testified his psychological symptoms had gone away. Tr. 64-65.

         With respect to physical issues, Plaintiff indicated he has daily chest pain, but his doctors had been unable to determine a cause for the issue. Tr. 59-60. He stated that if he stays seated or lies down, the chest pain will typically dissipate.Tr. 60. He reported he therefore stays in bed most of the day. Tr. 60. Plaintiff testified he also has dull pain in his right knee and that it would give out on him about five times a week. Tr. 61. He indicated he had been prescribed a cane for the ailment, but he no longer used the cane. Tr. 60-61. Plaintiff stated he has stomach issues, but all tests on his colon and abdomen had been negative. Tr. 61. He testified that approximately 15 days a month he has diarrhea which requires him to use the bathroom 20 times a day. Tr. 62. Plaintiff lastly indicated he has sharp lower back pain due to four slipped discs. Tr. 65-66.

         Plaintiff testified he could walk about two miles in one stretch, stand about half-an-hour at one time, and sit about two hours before needing to stand up and move around. Tr. 62-63. Plaintiff stated that his daily activities consisted of mostly lying in bed. Tr. 64. When asked why he lies in bed most of the day, he responded, “because I have nothing else to do really.” Tr. 66.


         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 ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable interpretation of the applicable 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; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). 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, 1229-1230 (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); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (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 1098-1099. This burden is met once the claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot perform 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. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (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 3, 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 the January 3, 2013, application date. Tr. 13.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: somatoform disorder, personality disorder and depression. Tr. 13.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 14.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and determined he could perform a range of medium exertion level work with the following additional limitations: he can only frequently climb stairs and ramps, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; he must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants and hazards; he can perform only simple, routine, repetitive tasks with a reasoning level of two or less; he is capable of only simple decision-making in a routine, predictable environment; and he can have no contact with the public and only superficial contact with supervisors and coworkers. Tr. 14-15.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. Tr. 19. However, at step five, the ALJ determined that based on the testimony of the vocational expert, and considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and RFC, Plaintiff could perform other jobs present in significant numbers in the national economy, including the jobs of kitchen helper, industrial cleaner and laborer stores or warehouse worker. Tr. 19-20. The ALJ thus concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of the ...

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