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Stolz v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

June 1, 2018

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


          Mary Alice Theiler, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Malinda Stolz proceeds through counsel in her appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1964.[1] She obtained a GED and previously worked as an inventory clerk and general clerk. (AR 30, 69.)

         Plaintiff protectively filed a DIB application on March 6, 2014, alleging disability beginning June 26, 2012. (AR 325.) The application was denied initially and on reconsideration.

         On August 27, 2015, ALJ Larry Kennedy held a hearing, taking testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 78-124.) The ALJ held a second hearing on January 25, 2016, taking testimony from plaintiff, a medical expert (ME), and a VE. (AR 37-77.)

         On May 9, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled. (AR 15-31.) The ALJ found a prior, July 26, 2013 denial of a DIB application administratively final, found no basis for reopening that claim, and primarily addressed evidence and opinions dated after the administratively final decision. (AR 15, 22.)

         Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on August 16, 2017 (AR 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe plaintiff's degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, affective-related disorders, anxiety-related disorders, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and substance abuse disorder. Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment.

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found plaintiff able to perform light work, with the following exceptions: occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; unable to climb or crawl; and avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat, humidity, vibration, pulmonary irritants, and hazards. Plaintiff could perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions, do work that needs little or no judgment, and perform simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period. She requires a work environment with minimal supervisor contact (meaning contact that does not occur regularly; not preluding simple and superficial exchanges or being in close proximity to supervisor), can work in proximity to co-workers, but not in a cooperative or team effort, and requires a work environment with no more than superficial interactions with co-workers, is predictable, and with few work setting changes. She should not deal with the general public, as in a sales position or where the general public is frequently encountered as an essential element of the work process, but can have incidental, brief, and superficial public contact. With that assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff unable to perform her past relevant work.

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, or has no past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the assistance of the VE, the ALJ found plaintiff capable of performing other jobs, such as work as a small products assembler or production assembler.

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Accord Marsh v. Colvin, 792 F.3d 1170, 1172 (9th Cir. 2015) (“We will set aside a denial of benefits only if the denial is unsupported by substantial evidence in the administrative record or is based on legal error.”) Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's failure to accommodate all of her COPD-related limitations in the RFC, arguing error in the assessment of her symptom testimony, a physician's opinion, and lay testimony. She requests remand for further administrative proceedings. The Commissioner argues the ALJ's decision has the support of substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         Symptom ...

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