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Michael G. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 23, 2019

MICHAEL G., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 16, 17. Attorney Cory J. Brandt represents Michael G. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Justin Lane Martin represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 4. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS, in part, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REMANDS the matter to the Commissioner for additional proceedings pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c).


         Plaintiff filed applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on October 28, 2014, Tr. 76-77, alleging disability since June 30, 2008, Tr. 154, 161, due to a back injury in 2008 followed by surgery, right leg sciatica, and nerve damage at ¶ 5-S1. Tr. 188. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 92-94, 97-101. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Jesse Shumway held a hearing on January 24, 2017 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Lynn Jahnke, M.D. and vocational expert Daniel McKinney. Tr. 34-65. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 9, 2017. Tr. 15-27. The Appeals Council denied review on March 13, 2018. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's March 9, 2017 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Plaintiff initiated this action for judicial review on May 18, 2018. ECF Nos. 1, 7.


         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 32 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 154. At application, he reported that he completed two years of college in 2006. Tr. 189. His reported work history includes being an apprentice repair technician at a heavy equipment dealership, a day laborer, and a production supervisor in the food industry. Id. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on October 31, 2013 because of his conditions, but he had also made changes in his work activity as early as February 20, 2008. Tr. 188. At the hearing, Plaintiff clarified that in 2001 he worked as a cabinetmaker for three months, from 2003 and 2004 he worked building custom doors, from 2004 to 2005 he worked in woodworking at night while he attended school, and from 2006 to 2008 he worked as an entry level mechanic for heavy equipment. Tr. 47-51.

         Plaintiff was injured on February 20, 2008 and underwent a lumbar discectomy on July 3, 2008. Tr. 797, 862. Following surgery, Plaintiff worked for Vista Utilities in 2012 inspecting gas meters and at Manpower in 2013 as a forklift driver. Tr. 40-41. He also attended school in 2011 and 2012 to learn how to repair hospital equipment. Tr. 41, 59.


         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 Court reviews the ALJ's determinations of law de novo, deferring to a reasonable interpretation of the 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. 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, 1229-30 (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), 416.920(a); see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (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 1098-99. This burden is met once the claimant establishes that physical or mental impairments prevent him from engaging in his previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot do his 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 exist in the national economy. Batson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193-94 (9th Cir. 2004). If the 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), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On March 9, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from June 30, 2008 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 30, 2008, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Tr. 17.

         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 one of the listed impairments. Tr. 19.

         At step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual function capacity and determined he could perform a range of light work with the following limitations:

the claimant requires a sit/stand option at will; he can stand and walk in combination only two hours total in an eight-hour day, thirty minutes at a time; he can frequently reach; he cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and can perform all other postural activities only occasionally; he can have no concentrated exposure to extreme cold or vibration; he cannot be exposed to hazards, ...

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