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Lee S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

May 23, 2019

LEE S., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 15. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Lee S. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Summer Stinson 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 DENIES, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on September 22, 2014. Tr. 75, 85. He alleged disability since September 29, 2013 on his DIB application, Tr. 165, and August 1, 2012 on his SSI application, Tr. 172.[1] Upon application, he alleged the following conditions limited his ability to work: titanium shoulder; shoulder surgeries; weight limits for lifting; blood pressure; back problems from a car accident at age 11; on the job shoulder injury in October of 2004; acid reflux; and Barrett's esophagus. Tr. 197. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 110-13, 115-20. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stewart Stallings held a hearing on September 21, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff and vocational expert Diane Kramer. Tr. 30-65. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on March 9, 2017. Tr. 15-24. The Appeals Council denied review on February 27, 2018. Tr. 1-5. 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 April 27, 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 42 years old at the alleged date of onset, September 29, 2013. Tr. 165. He completed his GED in 1988 and received training through Job Corps. Tr. 198. His reported work history includes assistant manager at a fuel station, labor jobs, and janitorial work. Tr. 198, 208. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on September 29, 2013 because of his conditions. Tr. 197.


         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, he is found “disabled”. 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 September 29, 2013 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 29, 2013, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: left shoulder, status post three surgeries; sleep apnea; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; back pain; and Barrett's esophagus. 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. 18.

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

[H]e needs to be able to shift positions from sitting, standing, or walking once an hour for 5 minutes while remaining at his work station. With his left upper extremity, he can frequently push and pull, reach in all directions, finger, and handle. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs, occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. He should avoid frequent exposure to extreme cold and heat, occasional exposure to ...

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