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Negussie v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

February 26, 2018

ATNAFU BEZA NEGUSSIE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 16, 17

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 16, 17. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiffs Motion (ECF No. 16) and grants Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 17).

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). 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 reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an 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 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable 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); 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i); 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b); 416.920(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii); 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c); 416.920(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii); 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d); 416.920(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1); 416.945(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv); 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f); 416.920(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v); 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1); 416.920(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (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); 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits on April 25, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of August 7, 2010. Tr. 294-95; Tr. 296-302; Tr. 47. Benefits were denied initially, Tr. 188-91, and upon reconsideration. Tr. 197-201. Plaintiff appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on July 12, 2013. Tr. 44-84; Tr. 209-10. Medical expert Margaret Moore, Ph.D. testified. Tr. 44. On July 25 2013, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim. Tr. 162-82. On November 25, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the hearing decision and remanded for further proceedings. Tr. 183-87. The Appeals Council directed the ALJ to give further consideration to the opinions of Plaintiff s treating physician (Kingsley C. Ugorji, M.D.) and whether the Plaintiff medically requires the use of an assistance device for balance, standing, and/or ambulation, and, if necessary, obtain further medical expert and vocational testimony. Tr. 184-85. Another administrative hearing was held on May 1, 2015 before a different ALJ. Medical expert Darius Ghazi, M.D. and vocational expert Daniel McKinney testified. Tr. 85. On May 29, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs applications. Tr. 17-43.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 7, 2010. Tr. 23. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease (DDD) of the lumbar spine, allergic rhinitis, obesity, depression, and anxiety. Tr. 23. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 23. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a “full range of light work, ” except:

he can stand and/or walk for only four hours in a normal 8-hour workday; he would have no use of his right upper extremity (RUE) while walking because of his need for a cane; he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he could only perform occasional stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, and climbing of ramps and stairs; he must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights and concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants; and he is capable of no more than semi-skilled tasks with brief superficial contact with the public.

         Tr. 26. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. Tr. 36. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform such as production assembler, electronic worker, and garment sorter. Tr. 36-37. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since August 7, 2010 through the date of the decision. Tr. 37.

         On September 26, 2016, the Appeals Counsel denied review, Tr. 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3); 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1481, 422.210.

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying him disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. ECF No. 16. Plaintiff raises the following issues for this Court's review:

1. Whether the ALJ properly weighed Plaintiffs symptom claims; and
2. Whether the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinion ...

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