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Walker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

March 22, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.



         Scott Allen Walker has brought this matter for judicial review of defendant's denial of his application for disability insurance and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits. The parties have consented to have this matter heard by the undersigned Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73; Local Rule MJR 13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court affirms the Commissioner's decision denying benefits.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 20, 2014, Mr. Walker filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and another application for supplemental security income benefits. Dkt. 9, Administrative Record (AR) 16. He alleged in his applications that he became disabled beginning October 15, 2013.[1] Id. His application was denied on initial administrative review and on reconsideration. Id. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on September 22, 2015. AR 33-69. Mr. Walker and a vocational expert appeared and testified.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Walker could perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, and therefore that he was not disabled. AR 16-26 (ALJ decision dated January 28, 2016). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Walker's request for review on April 20, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. AR 1. Mr. Walker appealed that decision in a complaint filed with this Court on June 23, 2017. Dkt. 4; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481.

         Mr. Walker seeks reversal of the ALJ's decision and remand for an award of benefits or, alternatively, for further administrative proceedings including a new hearing. He argues that the ALJ misapplied the law and lacked substantial evidence for her decision. He contends that the ALJ erred at steps two and five of the five-step criteria. The alleged errors concern the ALJ's reasons for finding allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis (ABPA) not to be a severe impairment and for discounting a physician's assistant's opinion about Mr. Walker's capabilities. For the reasons set forth below, the undersigned concludes that the ALJ properly applied the law and substantial evidence supports her decision. Consequently, the undersigned affirms the decision to deny benefits.


         The Commissioner employs a five-step “sequential evaluation process” to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If the ALJ finds the claimant disabled or not disabled at any particular step, the ALJ makes the disability determination at that step and the sequential evaluation process ends. See id.

         The five steps are a set of criteria by which the ALJ considers: (1) Does the claimant presently work in substantial gainful activity? (2) Is the claimant's impairment (or combination of impairments) severe? (3) Does the claimant's impairment (or combination) equal or meet an impairment that is listed in the regulations? (4) Does the claimant have RFC, and if so, does this RFC show that the complainant would be able to perform relevant work that he or she has done in the past? And (5) if the claimant cannot perform previous work, are there significant numbers of jobs that exist in the national economy that the complainant nevertheless would be able to perform in the future? Keyser v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 648 F.3d 721, 724-25 (9th Cir. 2011).

         At issue here is the ALJ's step-two determination about which of Mr. Walker's impairments qualify as “severe, ” the ALJ's consideration of the medical opinion evidence in assessing Mr. Walker's residual functional capacity (RFC), and the ALJ's consequent finding at step five that Mr. Walker can perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy.

         The Court will uphold an ALJ's decision unless: (1) the decision is based on legal error; or (2) the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. Revels v. Berryhill, 874 F.3d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 2017). Substantial evidence is “‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017) (quoting Desrosiers v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 846 F.2d 573, 576 (9th Cir. 1988)). This requires “‘more than a mere scintilla, '” though “‘less than a preponderance'” of the evidence. Id. (quoting Desrosiers, 846 F.2d at 576). If more than one rational interpretation can be drawn from the evidence, then the Court must uphold the ALJ's interpretation. Orn v. Astrue, 495 F.3d 625, 630 (9th Cir. 2007). The Court may not affirm by locating a quantum of supporting evidence and ignoring the non-supporting evidence. Id.

         The Court must consider the administrative record as a whole. Garrison v. Colvin, 759 F.3d 995, 1009 (9th Cir. 2014). The Court is required to weigh both the evidence that supports, and evidence that does not support, the ALJ's conclusion. Id. The Court may not affirm the decision of the ALJ for a reason upon which the ALJ did not rely. Id. Only the reasons identified by the ALJ are considered in the scope of the Court's review. Id.


         At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ must determine if an impairment is “severe.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. In this case, the ALJ determined that Mr. Walker had three severe impairments: moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, moderate asthma, and insomnia secondary to steroid therapy for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. AR 18. Mr. Walker contends that the ...

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