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Christopher D. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

April 30, 2019

CHRISTOPHER D., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 12, 14. Attorney Lora Lee Stover represents Christopher D. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Alexis Toma represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. 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 March 24, 2014, Tr. 147, 159, alleging disability since November 30, 2013, Tr. 300, 302, due to mental health issues and knee issues, Tr. 333. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 197-200, 203-07. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mark Kim held a hearing on August 10, 2016 and continued the hearing for Plaintiff to obtain legal representation. Tr. 82-95. The ALJ held a second hearing on February 7, 2017 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Stephen Rubin, Ph.D., and vocational expert Fred Cutler. Tr. 96-146. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 27, 2017. Tr. 41-56. The Appeals Council denied review on April 3, 2018. Tr. 1-7. The ALJ's March 27, 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 filed this action for judicial review on May 23, 2018. ECF Nos. 1, 4.


         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 50 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 300. Plaintiff completed two years of college in 2012. Tr. 334. His reported work history includes the jobs of forklift driver, group therapist, laborer, line cook, skills coach, dock worker, post commander, detailer, and Atta lift operator. Tr. 334, 340. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on November 30, 2013 because of his conditions. Tr. 333. Plaintiff reported working since applying for benefits. Tr. 409-10. Income records show as many as six different employers since the alleged date of onset. Tr. 317-24.


         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) specific jobs which the claimant can perform 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, he is found “disabled.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On March 27, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from November 30, 2013 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity from June 25, 2015 through September 30, 2015. Tr. 43. However, the ALJ addressed the remaining steps for the entire alleged period of disability, “for completeness.” Tr. 44.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of both knees; degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; depressive disorder; generalized anxiety disorder; and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Tr. 44.

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

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