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Andrews v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

March 28, 2018

GREG SCOTT ANDREWS, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDERDENYINGPLAINTIFF'S MOTIONFORSUMMARY JUDGMENTANDGRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARYJUDGMENT ECF NOS. 18, 25

          MARY K. DIMKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 18, 25. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 9. 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. 18) and grants Defendant's motion (ECF No. 25).[1]

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 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. § 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI supplemental security income benefits on September 5, 2012, alleging an amended onset date of September 15, 2012. Tr. 277-82. The application was denied initially, Tr. 175-82, and on reconsideration, Tr. 184-90. Plaintiff appeared pro se at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 30, 2015. Tr. 49-63. Plaintiff appeared with counsel at supplemental hearings on June 12, 2015, Tr. 64-98, and September 11, 2015, Tr. 99-149. On October 8, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim. Tr. 27-42.

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 5, 2012. Tr. 29. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity; coronary artery disease back problems described as degenerative arthritis and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, and thoracic spondylosis; and mental impairments described as generalized anxiety disorder without agoraphobia, cannabis use, and polysubstance use. Tr. 29. At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 30. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday; stand and walk six hours total in any combination in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks; can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can occasionally push or pull arm or leg controls within the weight limitations given; can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and balance; can occasionally climb ramps or stairs; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He should avoid concentrated exposure to heavy industrial vibrations; no unprotected heights; should avoid concentrated exposure to hazardous machinery, and extreme cold or heat. He can occasionally reach overhead with the right upper extremity; can frequently reach in all other directions within 18 inches of the body with the right upper extremity; and can occasionally reach in all other directions outside of 18 inches of the body with the right upper extremity. The claimant would need a job where he is around co-workers and the general public; no job where he would be completely isolated; and no job that would be considered claustrophobic in nature.

         Tr. 32.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff is able to perform past relevant work as a fast foods worker. Tr. 40. Alternatively, at step five, the ALJ found there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, such as barista, cashier, and ticket seller. Tr. 41. On November 25, 2016, the Appeals Council denied review of the ALJ's decision, 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).

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying him supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff raises the following issues for review:

1. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's symptom complaints;
2. Whether the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence;
3. Whether the ALJ's RFC finding is supported by substantial evidence; and
4. Whether the ALJ properly considered the Medical Vocational ...

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