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Putnam v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

April 20, 2018

SCOTT PUTNAM, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JAMES P. DONOHUE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Scott Putnam appeals the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) that denied his 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.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         At the time of the administrative hearing, Plaintiff was a 33-year-old man with an 11th-grader education. Administrative Record (“AR”) at 43. His past work experience includes employment as a laborer and valet. AR at 344. Plaintiff was last gainfully employed in 2010. AR at 19, 45, 263.

         In September 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB, alleging an onset date of December 25, 2007.[1] AR at 112, 251-54. Plaintiff asserts that he is disabled due to a back injury and numbness in his right leg. AR at 335, 366.

         The Commissioner denied Plaintiffs claim initially and on reconsideration. AR at 148-54, 157-61. Plaintiff requested a hearing, which took place on July 10, 2015. AR at 38-69. On February 2, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled and denied benefits based on her finding that Plaintiff could perform a specific job existing in significant numbers in the national economy. AR at 16-29. Plaintiffs administrative appeal of the ALJ's decision was denied by the Appeals Council, AR at 1-7, making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner as that term is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On August 25, 2017, Plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the Commissioner's decision. Dkt. 1, 3.

         II. JURISDICTION

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

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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.

         IV. EVALUATING DISABILITY

         As the claimant, Mr. Putnam bears the burden of proving that he 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 his impairments are of such severity that he is unable to do his previous work, and cannot, considering his 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.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b).[2] If he is, disability benefits are denied. If he is not, the Commissioner proceeds to step two. At step two, the claimant must establish that he has one or more medically severe impairments, or combination of impairments, that limit his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. If the claimant does not have such impairments, he 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 he can still perform that work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform his past relevant work, he 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.

         V. DECISION BELOW

         On February 2, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding the following:

1. The claimant last met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act on March 31, 2014.
2. The claimant did not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from the date he can first be found disabled, May 3, 2011.
3. Through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, and a congenital deformity of the hand.
4. Through the date last insured, 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, I find that, through the date last insured, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he could only perform frequent squatting and kneeling. The claimant could perform frequent reaching, handling, and fingering with the bilateral upper extremities. He could perform occasional twisting, bending, and stooping and occasional overhead reaching with the ...

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