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Chad M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 4, 2018

CHAD M., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 15, 20. Attorney Jeffrey Schwab represents Chad M. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Nancy A. Mishalanie 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 July 30, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability since August 16, 2010, due to a back injury and depression. Tr. 152, 176. Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration.

         Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Moira Ausems held a hearing on June 23, 2015, Tr. 51-84, and issued an unfavorable decision on September 20, 2015, Tr. 20-36. The Appeals Council denied review on April 7, 2017. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ’s September 2015 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 May 30, 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 November 29, 1976, and was 33 years old on the alleged onset date, August 16, 2010. Tr. 152. He completed the ninth grade in school, attending special education classes, and had not completed any type of specialized job training, trade or vocational school. Tr. 68, 177. Plaintiff’s disability report indicates he stopped working in 2010, because of his condition(s). Tr. 176. Plaintiff testified at the June 23, 2015, administrative hearing that back pain as a result of an injury and the need for rest breaks prevented him from being able to perform work. Tr. 81-82. He stated he experienced back pain “pretty much all day,” and could lift only about five pounds without pain. Tr. 58. Plaintiff further indicated he did not believe he could walk a mile at one stretch. Tr. 62. He did not describe any mental health limitations at the administrative hearing.

         Plaintiff stated his wife worked during the day, and he was responsible for caring for their twin two-year-old boys during that time. Tr. 59-60. Plaintiff testified he tried to help his wife as much as possible (e.g., grocery shopping), Tr. 64; however, he hired someone to take care of his yard, Tr. 65, his wife did the cooking, Tr. 66, and his teenage daughter was responsible for the housework and laundry, Tr. 66. He described his typical day as waking up at 6:00 a.m. with his twin toddlers, making them breakfast, and then spending the day ensuring his sons were entertained (e.g., watching television or playing in the backyard). Tr. 66-67. He had been responsible for the daily care of his twin sons since their birth. Tr. 60.


         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 do his 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).


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