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Siekerman v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 7, 2018



          ROSANNA MALOUF PETERSON, United States District Judge.

         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment from Plaintiff Cheryl Ann Siekerman, ECF No. 13, and the Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner”), ECF No. 14. Ms. Siekerman sought judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner's denial of her claims for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). The Court has reviewed the motions, the administrative record, and is fully informed. The motions were heard without oral argument. The Court denies Ms. Siekerman's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 13, and grants the Commissioner's cross-motion, ECF No. 14.


         A. Ms. Siekerman's Claim for Benefits and Procedural History

         Ms. Siekerman applied for supplemental security income through an application filed on October 15, 2011. Administrative Record (“AR”) 178-83.[1] Ms. Siekerman was 34 years old at the time that she applied for benefits. Ms. Siekerman initially alleged that her onset date was January 1, 2004. AR 178. Ms. Siekerman's application for supplemental security income was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Ms. Siekerman timely requested a hearing. In her initial hearing, on July 24, 2013, the parties agreed that, for the purposes of the ALJ's consideration of her application, Ms. Siekerman's alleged onset date was October 15, 2011, the date of her supplemental security income application. AR 47. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See AR 18.

         After the Appeals Council denied Ms. Siekerman's request for review, Ms. Siekerman sought judicial review. AR 713-15. Magistrate Judge Hutton remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. AR 719-36.

         B. May 12, 2016 Hearing

         A hearing took place before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Jesse K. Shumway on May 12, 2016, in Spokane, Washington, with Ms. Siekerman, represented by attorney Dana Madsen.[2] See AR 625. Ms. Siekerman responded to questions from her attorney and Judge Shumway. A vocational expert, Polly A. Peterson, a medical expert, Judy Panek, and a psychological expert, Donna Mary Veraldi, were also present via telephone. At this hearing, the parties determined that Ms. Siekerman's alleged onset date was February 2, 2010, the date of Ms. Siekerman's earlier application for benefits. AR 629.

         C. ALJ's Decision

         On June 10, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. See AR 589-622. Utilizing the five-step evaluation process, Judge Shumway found:

Step one: Ms. Siekerman had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 2, 2010, the date of her application.
Step two: Ms. Siekerman has the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease; lumbar degenerative disc disease status-post laminectomy; obesity; borderline intellectual functioning; major depressive disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; and anti-social personality disorder.
Step three: Ms. Siekerman does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.

         Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”): The ALJ found that Ms. Siekerman had the RFC to

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except: she can only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she can only occasionally reach overhead; she can tolerate only occasional exposure to extreme cold and vibration, and must avoid all exposure to hazards and moving mechanical parts; she is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks requiring a reasoning level of 2 or less; and she can have no contact with the public, and only occasional superficial contact with supervisors and co-workers.

AR 603.

         Step four: Ms. Siekerman is unable to perform past relevant work as a telemarketer, because an individual with Ms. Siekerman's limitations could not perform this work, based on the testimony of the vocational expert. AR 615.

         Step five: Ms. Siekerman was not disabled for purposes of the Social Security Act. The ALJ considered Ms. Siekerman's age, education, work experience, and RFC, and found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Ms. Siekerman can perform. Id.

         Based on this finding, Judge Shumway concluded that Ms. Siekerman was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act.

         The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Ms. Siekerman's request for review on November 23, 2016. AR 578-81. Ms. Siekerman seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits.


         A. Standard of Review

         Congress has provided a limited scope of judicial review of a Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only if the ALJ's determination was based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence. See Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). “The [Commissioner's] determination that a claimant is not disabled will be upheld if the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence.” Delgado v. Heckler, 722 F.2d 570, 572 (9th Cir. 1983) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975); McCallister v. Sullivan, 888 F.2d 599, 601-02 (9th Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence “means such evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citations omitted). “[S]uch inferences and conclusions as the [Commissioner] may reasonably draw from the evidence” will also be upheld. Mark v. Celebrezze, 348 F.2d 289, 293 (9th Cir. 1965). On review, the court considers the record as a whole, not just the evidence supporting the decisions of the Commissioner. Weetman v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 20, 22 (9th Cir. 1989) (quoting Kornock v. Harris, 648 F.2d 525, 526 (9th Cir. 1980)).

         It is the role of the trier of fact, not the reviewing court, to resolve conflicts in evidence. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400. If evidence supports more than one rational interpretation, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will still be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making a decision. Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). Thus, if there is substantial evidence to support the administrative findings, or if there is conflicting evidence that will support a finding of either disability or nondisability, the finding of the Commissioner is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-30 (9th Cir. 1987).

         B. Definition of Disability

         The Social Security Act defines “disability” as the “inability 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 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act also provides that a claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if his impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering the claimant's age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Thus, the definition of disability consists of both medical and vocational components. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001).

         C. Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Step one determines if he is engaged in substantial gainful activities. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activities, ...

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