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Christopher A. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

April 24, 2019

CHRISTOPHER A., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner of Social Security for Operations, Defendant.


          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff proceeds through counsel in his appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ’s decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1972.[1] He has an associate’s degree, and has worked as a computer support analyst and electronics analyst. (AR 110, 392, 405-10.)

         Plaintiff applied for DIB in May 2015. (AR 227, 356-62.) That application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 260-62, 267-70.)

         On April 9, 2017, and January 25, 2018, ALJ S. Andrew Grace held hearings, taking testimony from Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 149-226.) On May 4, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 95-112.) Plaintiff timely appealed. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review on July 18, 2018 (AR 1-6), making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ’s decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 24, 2015, the alleged onset date. (AR 98.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff’s degenerative disc disease; cauda equina syndrome; posttraumatic stress disorder; anxiety disorder, not otherwise specified; and headaches. (AR 98-99.) Step three asks whether a claimant’s impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 99-101.)

         If a claimant’s impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing light work with additional limitations: he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, or crawl. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch. He can occasionally push/pull, and operate foot controls. He can frequently handle/finger bilaterally. He must avoid concentrated exposure to vibrations, pulmonary irritants, and hazards. He is limited to performing simple, repetitive, and routine tasks consistent with unskilled work. He cannot interact with the public, but can occasionally interact with coworkers. He is limited to low-stress work, defined as work requiring few decisions/changes. (AR 101.) With that assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform past relevant work. (AR 110.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the help of the VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to other representative jobs, such as small product assembler, marker, final assembler, and document preparer. (AR 110-11.)

         This Court’s review of the ALJ’s decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ’s decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) assessing his disability and unemployability ratings from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), (2) discounting his subjective symptom testimony and lay statements, and (3) discounting a consultative examiner’s opinion. The Commissioner argues ...

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