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Gibb v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 21, 2018

NATALIE GIBB, Plaintiff,



         Before the Court are Plaintiff Natalie Gibb's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 12, and Defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 16. The motions were heard without oral argument. Plaintiff is represented by Dana C. Madsen; Defendant is represented by Assistant United States Attorney Timothy Durkin and Special Assistant United States Attorney Joseph J. Langkamer.


         On December 6, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for disability insurance benefits as well as a Title XVI application for supplemental income. Plaintiff alleges an onset date of December 4, 2012.

         Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration. On March 26, 2015, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held in Spokane, Washington before an ALJ. The ALJ issued a decision on June 3, 2015, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which denied the request on February 18, 2017. The Appeals Council's denial of review makes the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on April 12, 2017. The matter is before this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Sequential Evaluation Process

         The Social Security Act defines disability as the inability “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). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if his impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering claimant's age, education, and work experiences, engage in any other 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 evaluation process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987).

         Step 1: Is the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activities? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is work done for pay and requires compensation above the statutory minimum. Id.; Keyes v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1053, 1057 (9th Cir. 1990). If the claimant is engaged in substantial activity, benefits are denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.971. If he is not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         Step 2: Does the claimant have a medically-severe impairment or combination of impairments? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied. A severe impairment is one that lasted or must be expected to last for at least 12 months and must be proven through objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.908-.909. If the impairment is severe, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step 3: Does the claimant's impairment meet or equal one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d); 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1. If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is conclusively presumed to be disabled. Id. If the impairment is not one conclusively presumed to be disabling, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.

         Before considering Step 4, the ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(e). An individual's residual functional capacity is her ability to do physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite limitations from her impairments.

         Step 4: Does the impairment prevent the claimant from performing work she has performed in the past? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant is able to perform her previous work, she is not disabled. Id. If the claimant cannot perform this work, the evaluation proceeds to the fifth and final step.

         Step 5: Is the claimant able to perform other work in the national economy in view of her age, education, and work experience? 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g).

         The initial burden of proof rests upon the claimant to establish a prima facie case of entitlement to disability benefits. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents her from engaging in her previous occupation. Id. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can perform other substantial gainful activity. Id.

         Standard of Review

         The Commissioner's determination will be set aside only when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1018 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla, ” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), but “less than a preponderance.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The Court must uphold the ALJ's denial of benefits if the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the decision of the administrative law judge. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004). The Court reviews the entire record. Jones v. Heckler, 760 F.2d 993, 995 (9th Cir. 1985). “If the evidence can support either outcome, the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ.” Matney, 981 F.2d at 1019.

         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. Secr'y of Health & Human Servs., 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1988). An ALJ is allowed “inconsequential” errors as long as they are immaterial to the ultimate nondisability determination. Stout v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 454 F.3d 1050, 1055 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Statement of Facts

         The facts have been presented in the administrative transcript, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs to this Court; only the most relevant facts are summarized here.

         At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 54-years old. She lived with and took care of her elderly mother. She has worked mostly data entry jobs, clerical temp jobs and housekeeping. Her last job was as a housekeeper. She quit that job because she felt she could not physically or mentally continue to work.

         In 2012, Plaintiff suffered from depression and chronic right shoulder pain. She also experienced vertigo and a deviated septum. She had surgery for the deviated septum in June, 2013, which appeared to clear up her nasal problems. She continues to experience problems with her vertigo, including becoming dizzy when she bends down. Plaintiff also experienced loss of appetite and weight loss. In July, 2013, she fell and broke her clavicle, which took several months to heal and continues to cause her pain. In January, 2014, she was admitted to the hospital with diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. She went into respiratory failure and was admitted into the ICU. It was determined that she had pneumonia and a cyst on her pancreas (which turned out to be benign). She spent three weeks in the hospital and was discharged to a care facility where she recuperated. After her hospitalization, she continued to experience loose stools, varying between 10 a day to less than 3-4 times a day, and ...

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