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Lee M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

July 31, 2018

BRIAN LEE M., Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Brian Lee M. appeals the Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). He alleges that the ALJ (1) erroneously rejected medical opinions, and (2) improperly discredited his symptom testimony. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration asks the Court to affirm the ALJ's decision.

         After reviewing the record and the relevant authority, the Court is fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that the ALJ properly weighed the medical opinions and symptom testimony. Accordingly, the Court grants the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment and denies Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         At the time of the alleged onset date, Plaintiff was 28 years old and lived in Pasco, Washington. Plaintiff graduated from high school and completed some post-secondary school work. Plaintiff has worked as a waitress, a sales clerk, an office manager, and, most recently, a bartender. Plaintiff was terminated from his position as a bar tender due to poor performance.

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on January 15, 2013, alleging disability beginning June 1, 2012. AR 232-40. His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. AR 151-57, 160-64. A hearing was held in Spokane, Washington before ALJ Lori Freund on December 8, 2014, and supplemented on July 14, 2015. AR 46-115. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. Plaintiff filed a request for review by the Appeals Council, which was denied.

         II. ALJ FINDINGS[2]

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 12, 2014. AR 22.

         At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following medically determinable severe impairments: chronic low back strain with mild degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and polysubstance dependence (20 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). AR 22.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. AR 25.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. sections 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) with the following limitations: Plaintiff would need a sit-stand option, allowing for changes in positioning in at least 30-minute intervals. Plaintiff should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but can occasionally climb ramps or stairs with use of a hand rail and can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and balance. Plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures and excessive humidity or wetness, and should avoid all exposure to excessive or industrial-type vibration. Plaintiff should also avoid unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, and the operational control of moving machinery or moving mechanical parts. AR 25.

         In determining Plaintiff's physical capacity, the ALJ gave great weight to the March 2015 opinion of reviewing physician Dr. Anthony Francis. AR 29-30. The ALJ gave significant weight to the July 2014 opinion of examining nurse practitioner Fred Itveldt, the May 2015 opinion of examining nurse practitioner Lisa Phillips, and the May 2015 opinion of examining physician assistant John Colver. AR 30. The ALJ assigned significant weight to the November 2014 opinion of treating physician assistant Ryan Sanders with the exception of his determination that Plaintiff is unable to work for more than one to ten hours per week, to which the ALJ assigned little weight. AR 30. The ALJ assigned little weight to the July 2015 opinion of treating source William Philips. AR 30.

         At step five, the ALJ found Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work and there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. AR 31-32.


         The Court must uphold an ALJ's determination that a claimant is not disabled if the ALJ applied the proper legal standards and there is substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the decision. Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1110 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Stone v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 530, 531 (9th Cir.1985)). “Substantial evidence ‘means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Id. (quoting Valentine v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 574 F.3d 685, 690 (9th Cir. 2009)). This must be more than a mere scintilla, but may be less than a preponderance. Id. at 1110-11. Even where the evidence supports more than one ...

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