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Alexander C. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 22, 2018

ALEXANDER C. II, Plaintiff,


          Fred Van Sickle, Senior United States District Judge

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13 and 14. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. The plaintiff is represented by Attorney D. James Tree. The defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey R. McClain. The Court has reviewed the administrative record and the parties' completed briefing and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 14, and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 13.


         Plaintiff Alexander Cole II protectively filed for supplemental security income on February 15, 2008, alleging an onset date of January 1, 1996. Tr. 113. Benefits were denied initially (Tr. 74-77) and upon reconsideration (Tr. 81-84). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), which was held before ALJ James W. Sherry on January 6, 2010. Tr. 39-71. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. On February 11, 2010 the ALJ denied benefits. Tr. 10-27. On June 1, 2012, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington granted Plaintiff's motion and remanded the case for further proceedings. Tr. 849-82. Plaintiff subsequently appeared for a hearings before ALJ Larry Kennedy on November 12, 2015 and May 19, 2016. Tr. 740-825. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearings via telephone from Airway Heights Correctional Facility. Id. The ALJ denied benefits on October 28, 2016. Tr. 668-702. The matter is now before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).


         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner, and will therefore only the most pertinent facts are summarized here.

         Alexander Cole II (“Plaintiff”) was 34 years old at the time of the hearing in November 2015. Tr. 766. He testified that he finished the eleventh grade, and was in special education for all of his classes since the first grade. Tr. 766-67. Plaintiff reports a history of childhood abuse. Tr. 714-15. He has no work history. Tr. 713, 757. Plaintiff appeared for the hearings in November 2015 and May 2016 via telephone from Airway Heights Correctional Facility. Tr. 744. He testified that he worked for three to six hours in the kitchen while incarcerated. Tr. 760. Prior to being incarcerated, Plaintiff reported that he was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia and did not use drugs except for marijuana. Tr. 759, 763-65. Plaintiff testified that he couldn't work because he has no work history, did not graduate from high school, has a criminal history, and has nerve damage in his back that prevents him from lifting over 50 pounds. Tr. 761-63.

         Plaintiff alleges disability due to psychosis, antisocial personality disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, nerve damage in his back, and ADHD. See Tr. 126, 681. As noted by the ALJ, and reflected in the longitudinal record, Plaintiff has an extensive history of polysubstance abuse, during which he displays “altered mental status, worsening psychosis, uncooperative behavior, and significant deterioration in overall mental functioning.” Tr. 682. Over the course of the record, Plaintiff has been diagnosed, at varying points in time, with adjustment disorder; depression; antisocial personality disorder; rule-out learning disorder; rule-out cognitive disorder; psychotic disorder NOS; substance use dependency/disorder (methamphetamine, alcohol, cannabis); obsessive compulsive disorder, and malingering. See Tr. 318, 640, 683-92, 1517, 1601, 1605-07, 1759. However, the record does not include any documented mental health treatment since mid- 2013, and jail records from February 2015 through March 2016 indicate Plaintiff was only treated for physical problems. See Tr. 1764, 2085, 2094-125, 2137-144.


         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. 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).


         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 or her] 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 ...

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