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Hornbuckle v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 4, 2018




         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 13, 14. Attorney Lora Lee Stover represents Bruce A. Hornbuckle (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Leisa A. Wolf represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         On September 10, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, alleging disability since September 1, 2012, due to nerve damage, carpal tunnel, arthritis and osteoarthritis. Tr. 156, 175. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.

         Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on March 16, 2016, Tr. 41-75, and issued an unfavorable decision on April 6, 2016, Tr. 20-30. The Appeals Council denied review on May 19, 2017. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's April 2016 decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on June 29, 2017. ECF No. 1, 4.


         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of the parties. They are only briefly summarized here.

         Plaintiff was born on April 12, 1965, and was 47 years old on the alleged onset date, September 1, 2012. Tr. 156. He had completed two years of college. Tr. 176. Plaintiff's disability report indicates he stopped working on September 1, 2012, because of his conditions, Tr. 175; however, as indicated by the ALJ, Plaintiff's last reported earnings were in 2006, Tr. 66.

         Plaintiff testified at the March 2016 administrative hearing that he experiences daily pain for which he takes non-narcotic medications. Tr. 58-59. He stated he wore braces for his hand issues, described an inability to make a fist, indicated he is not able to use his fingers to hold things, and is unable to open twist-top containers. Tr. 57-58, 62-64. Plaintiff also indicated he had been experiencing increased acid reflux and allergies. Tr. 59. He denied having any difficulty with depression. Tr. 65-66.

         Plaintiff testified he was not limited in sitting, was able to walk a mile without difficulties, and could stand one to six hours without having a problem. Tr. 59-60. He specifically stated he believed he could stand for a six-hour period of time in a work situation. Tr. 60-61. With respect to household chores, Plaintiff indicated he struggled with the continuous aerating/raking he had to perform, was able to cook but would need to use two hands when holding a gallon of milk and heavy kitchen tools, and was able to do the general cleaning in the home. Tr. 61-62. He testified he spends most of his day as a “couch potato” watching television. Tr. 65.


         The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving ambiguities. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable interpretation of the applicable statutes. McNatt v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1084, 1087 (9th Cir. 2000). The decision of the ALJ may be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or if it is based on legal error. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1097 (9th Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as being more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance. Id. at 1098. Put another way, substantial evidence 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). If the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1097; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). If substantial evidence supports the administrative findings, or if conflicting evidence supports a finding of either disability or non-disability, the ALJ's determination is conclusive. Sprague v. Bowen, 812 F.2d 1226, 1229-1230 (9th Cir. 1987). Nevertheless, a decision supported by substantial evidence will be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision. Brawner v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988).


         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (1987). In steps one through four, the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett, 180 F.3d at 1098-1099. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that physical or mental impairments prevent him from engaging in his previous occupation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other jobs present in significant numbers in the national economy. Batson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-1194 (2004). If a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, a finding of “disabled” is made. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On April 6, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date, September 10, 2013. Tr. 22. At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: mixed arthritis bilateral hand (combination of osteoarthritis and zero negative rheumatoid arthritis) present since June 2013; history of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status post release surgery on the left in November 2013; and mild osteoarthritis right hip and low back. Tr. 22. At step three, the ALJ found ...

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