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Stevens v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 6, 2018

SHAWN L. STEVENS, Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 13, 14. Attorney Gary R. Penar represents Shawn L. Stevens (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey Eric Staples represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. 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.


         On March 20, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and social security disability benefits, alleging disability since January 9, 2013, due to a car accident and brain injury. Tr. 201, 208, 232. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration.

         Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on June 24, 2015, Tr. 36-74, and issued an unfavorable decision on July 17, 2015, Tr. 11-24. The Appeals Council denied review on December 16, 2016. Tr. 1-5. The ALJ's July 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 February 15, 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 September 10, 1983, and was 29 years old on the alleged onset date, January 9, 2013. Tr. 201. He had completed one year of college. Tr. 233. Plaintiff's disability report indicates he stopped working on March 31, 2013, because he “was laid off.” Tr. 232. He reported to a medical examiner he was terminated from this job for interpersonal problems. Tr. 383.

         Plaintiff testified at the June 2015 administrative hearing that he has memory issues that prevent him from effectively grocery shopping, his forgetfulness restricts his ability to manage money, and he does not perform any chores in the home. Tr. 64-65. He stated he just sits in his chair most of the day. Tr. 65.

         Plaintiff indicated he has to constantly change positions in his chair due to back pain. Tr. 67. As a result of the back pain, he is not able to tie his shoes and needs help with dressing his lower half. Tr. 67. He testified he would take scalding hot baths for 10 to 15 minutes, followed by a cold bath, three to four times a day, to treat the back pain. Tr. 66-67. Plaintiff stated he also experiences three to five migraine headaches per month that last between 15 minutes and all day. Tr. 68. He lies in a quiet, dark room to relieve the headache symptoms. Tr. 68.

         Plaintiff testified he can only sit “a couple of minutes” before needing to change positions, can stand for two to three minutes before needing to sit or lie down, is able to walk only about 20 to 30 feet at one time, and is unable to lift a gallon of milk. Tr. 68-69.

         Plaintiff has three children, ages seven, six and three at the time of the administrative hearing, and his live-in brother-in-law helped care for the children. Tr. 65-66. Plaintiff stated his role with the children is primarily just playing with them. Tr. 66. He testified he does get up with his children in the morning and drive them about a half a block to their bus stop for school and is there to say goodnight to his children at night. Tr. 69.


         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. § 416.920(a); see 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 a claimant establishes that physical or mental impairments prevent him from engaging in his previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If a 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 claimant can perform exist in the national economy. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (2004). If a 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 July 17, 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 alleged onset date, January 9, 2013. Tr. 13. At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: lower back pain with small disc protrusion, history of minor concussions, mood disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), and possible personality disorder. Tr. 13. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an ...

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