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Dawn M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 18, 2019

DAWN M., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 14, 15. Attorney Cory Brandt represents Dawn M. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney L. Jamala Edwards represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 8. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on April 25, 2014, alleging disability since August 27, 2013, due to back conditions, headaches, blurred vision, Tourette Syndrome, and a neck injury. Tr. 169-70, 232. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 104-06, 114-16. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on February 22, 2017, Tr. 36-63, and issued an unfavorable decision on April 5, 2017, Tr. 16-29. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 23, 2018. Tr. 1- 4. The ALJ's April 2017 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 July 23, 2018. ECF No. 1, 4.


         Plaintiff was born on August 5, 1967 and was 46 years old on the alleged onset date, August 27, 2013, and 47 years old as of the date last insured. Tr. 76. She has a high school education and work history as a cashier, dealer, and pit boss in a casino, and in-home caretaker for disabled adults. Tr. 56, 207. She experienced an on-the-job injury in August 2013 when she intervened in an altercation between two residents at her place of employment. Tr. 51. She returned to work at a lighter duty position in November 2013, but the position was not available after December 2013. Tr. 51-52.

         In her application, Plaintiff alleged disability due to an inability to use the right side of her body without extreme pain, weakness, and numbing. Tr. 192. She was able to engage in some household chores and to care for her child and pets, though she stated she needed assistance from her husband. Tr. 192-95. She further indicated that she was unable to concentrate for extended periods of time due to pain. Tr. 199-204.

         At the hearing, Plaintiff testified her neck pain caused the greatest difficulties, and that since leaving her job, her functional abilities had progressively worsened, resulting in difficulty standing and functioning around the home. Tr. 52-53. She testified she had been using a cane, walker, or wheelchair since shortly after her August 2013 injury. Tr. 49-50.


         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. § 404.1520(a); 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 a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the claimant cannot do her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step five, and the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, and (2) the claimant can perform specific jobs which are available in the national economy. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (9th Cir. 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. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).


         On April 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 27, 2013, the alleged onset date. Tr. 18.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the spine, ...

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