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Anderson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

March 28, 2018

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



         Plaintiff Linda M. Anderson appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) that denied her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-33, after a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). For the reasons set forth below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.


         Plaintiff is a 48-year-old woman with a high school diploma and additional training as an educational assistant. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 30-31. Her past work experience includes employment as a paraeducator, barista, cashier, customer service clerk, dishwasher, painter, waitress, and weight operator. AR at 142. At the time of the most recent administrative hearing, Plaintiff was employed as a substitute paraeducator. AR at 918-22.

         In September 2007, she filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset date of August 30, 2001. AR at 75-76, 128-32. Plaintiff asserts that she is disabled due to back and knee pain, depression, and anxiety. AR at 141.

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 77-79, 82-83. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on June 7, 2010. AR at 25-74. On July 26, 2010, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on his finding that Plaintiff could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 10-18. Plaintiff's administrative appeal of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-5, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff sought judicial review in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, and the court granted the parties' stipulation to reverse the ALJ's decision and remand for further administrative proceedings. AR at 663-70. A different ALJ held a hearing on September 26, 2013. AR at 597-637. On November 27, 2013, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. AR at 863-80. Plaintiff filed exceptions, but the Appeals Council found no reason to assume jurisdiction, on November 6, 2014. AR at 854-58.

         Plaintiff sought judicial review of this final decision, and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington reversed the Commissioner's decision and remanded for further administrative proceedings. AR at 985-92. A third ALJ held a hearing, on November 9, 2016 (AR at 914-48), and subsequently found Plaintiff not disabled. AR at 890-905. Plaintiff again seeks judicial review. Dkt. 1, 3.


         Jurisdiction to review the Commissioner's decision exists pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.


         As the claimant, Ms. Anderson bears the burden of proving that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Meanel v. Apfel, 172 F.3d 1111, 1113 (9th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity” due to a physical or mental impairment which has lasted, or is 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). A claimant is disabled under the Act only if her impairments are of such severity that she is unable to do her previous work, and cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful activity existing in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A); see also Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098- 99 (9th Cir. 1999).

         The Commissioner has established a five step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof during steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. If a claimant is found to be disabled at any step in the sequence, the inquiry ends without the need to consider subsequent steps. Step one asks whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity” (“SGA”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[1] If she is, disability benefits are denied. If she is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that she has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit her physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, she is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant does have a severe impairment, the Commissioner moves to step three to determine whether the impairment meets or equals any of the listed impairments described in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). A claimant whose impairment meets or equals one of the listings for the required twelve-month duration requirement is disabled. Id.

         When the claimant's impairment neither meets nor equals one of the impairments listed in the regulations, the Commissioner must proceed to step four and evaluate the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). Here, the Commissioner evaluates the physical and mental demands of the claimant's past relevant work to determine whether she can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform her past relevant work, she is not disabled; if the opposite is true, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into consideration the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g); Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1099, 1100. If the Commissioner finds the claimant is unable to perform other work, then the claimant is found disabled and benefits may be awarded.


         On February 2, 2017, the ALJ found:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on December 31, 2003.
2. The claimant did not engage in SGA during the period from her alleged onset date of August 30, 2001, through the date last insured (“DLI”) of December 31, 2003.
3. Through the DLI, the claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and knee osteoarthritis.
4. Through the DLI, the claimant did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404 Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, through the DLI, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she could stand or walk 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. She was permitted to stand up to 15 minutes at a time at her own discretion. She could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She could occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel and crouch. She could never crawl. She needed to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and extreme cold. She was permitted to apply ice and heat packs at the workstation.
6. Through the DLI, the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant work.
7. The claimant was born on XXXXX, 1969, and was 34 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the DLI.[2]
8. The claimant has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English.
9. Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills.
10. Through the DLI, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed.
11. The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from August 30, 2001, the alleged onset date, through the DLI.

AR at 893-904.


         The principal ...

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