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Hill v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 19, 2018

SARAH LYNN HILL, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDERDENYINGPLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF NOS. 17, 18

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 17, 18. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's Motion (ECF No. 17) and grants Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 18).

         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).

         CHILDHOOD DISABILITY INSURANCE BENEFITS

         The Social Security Act provides disabled child's insurance benefits based on the earnings record of an insured person who is entitled to old-age or disability benefits or has died. 42 U.S.C. § 402(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404.350(a). The same definition of “disability” and five-step sequential evaluation outlined above governs eligibility for disabled child's insurance benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1)-(2). In addition, in order to qualify for disabled child's insurance benefits several criteria must be met. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(1)-(5). As relevant here, if the claimant is over 18, the claimant must “have a disability that began before [she] became 22 years old.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.350(a)(5).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         In July 2013, shortly after she turned age eighteen, Plaintiff applied for Title II child disability insurance benefits, otherwise known as disabled adult child benefits, as the survivor of her father, who died in March 2013. Tr. 212-15. In September 2013, Plaintiff also applied for Title XVI supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. Tr. 216-21. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2007 (eleven years old) in the SSI application, Tr.258, and June 9, 2013 in the insurance benefits application, Tr. 230. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 112-48. Plaintiff appeared for a consolidated hearing without representation before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 13, 2015. Tr. 45-70. Id. A supplemental hearing was held on June 23, 2015, where Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Tr. 71-111. On July 29, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claims. Tr. 15-34.

         The ALJ noted that Plaintiff was born on June 9, 1995 and had not attained the age of twenty-two as of January 1, 2007, the alleged onset date. Tr. 20. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 8, 2013, “the date Plaintiff attained the age of eighteen, and the beginning of the relevant period.”[1] Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: depression and anxiety. Tr. 21. 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. 21. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, but with the following nonexertional limitations:

the claimant is able to perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no detailed work and only ordinary production requirements. The claimant can have brief, superficial contact with the general public and occasional, brief, non-collaborative contact with co-workers. The claimant would work better with things than with people.

         Tr. 23. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff has no past relevant work. Tr. 27. At step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's 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 cleaner and kitchen helper. Tr. 28. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since June 8, 2013 through the date of the decision. Tr. 28.

         On December 16, 2016, the Appeals Council 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 her child disability insurance benefits under Title II and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. ECF No. 17. ...


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