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Marie B. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 24, 2019

JANA MARIE B., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Rosanna Malouf Peterson United States District Judge.

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 12, 16. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff is represented by attorney Dana C. Madsen. Defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Lars J. Nelson. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. 12, is denied and Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 16, is granted.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Jana Marie B.[1] (Plaintiff), filed for supplemental security income (SSI) on May 15, 2014, alleging an onset date of August 18, 2007.[2] Tr. 139-41, 447. Benefits were denied initially, Tr. 75-78, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 447. Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on June 9, 2016. Tr. 22-46. On June 29, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, Tr. 447-58, and on October 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 437-41. The matter is now before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3).

         BACKGROUND

         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner, and are therefore only summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 26 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 30. She left school in the ninth grade. Tr. 30. She was in special education classes. Tr. 30. Her primary work experience was working at a Chinese restaurant for one month. Tr. 31-32. She testified she cannot read or write and that she is not very good at math. Tr. 31. Her boyfriend pays the bills and reads the mail to her. Tr. 32. She stays at home most of the time. Tr. 33. She cannot be around a lot of people or she feels panicky. Tr. 33. Plaintiff testified she has a “really bad memory problem.” Tr. 38.

         Plaintiff testified that she experiences seizures. Tr. 34. She stares into space and gets sweaty and shaky during seizures five or six times a month. Tr. 34-35. Her seizures each last 30-60 seconds. Tr. 36. She feels tired afterward and needs to lie down for about an hour. Tr. 36. She does not take any medication for seizures. Tr. 37. She has had physical therapy for a back problem. Tr. 40.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner should conclude whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work “exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since May 15, 2014, the application date. Tr. 449. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: learning disorder, not otherwise specified, and borderline intellectual functioning. Tr. 449. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 451.

         The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with the following nonexertional limitations:

The claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant should avoid all exposure to hazards. The claimant is able t understand, remember and carry out simple, routine tasks and instructions. The claimant is able to maintain attention and concentration on simple, routine tasks for two-hour intervals between regularly scheduled breaks. The claimant should be in a very predictable environment with no changes in the work routine, and in those odd/rare instances where a change may occur, the claimant would need additional time (defined as ten percent more than the average employee) to adapt to those changes. The claimant needs instructions to be hands-on or ...

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