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Timothy M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 4, 2019

TIMOTHY M., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 18. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Timothy M. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Daphne Banay 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 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 May 28, 2015, Tr. 83-84, alleging disability since April 1, 2015, Tr. 221, 228, due to multiple mental health issues, anxiety, anhedonia, persistent depressive disorder, antisocial personality disorder, left knee pain, meralgia paresthtica, memory issues, vision problems, and bursitis, Tr. 270. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 151-54, 160-72. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Caroline Siderius held a hearing on February 16, 2017 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Charles Cooke, M.D., and vocational expert Sharon Welter. Tr. 38-82. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on April 5, 2017. Tr. 17-32. The Appeals Council denied review on February 20, 2018. Tr. 1-5. The ALJ's April 5, 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 April 20, 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 46 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 221. The highest grade Plaintiff completed was the eleventh. Tr. 271. His reported work history includes the jobs of construction worker, delivery/truck driver, food service worker, landscaper, and welder. Tr. 250, 272. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on April 1, 2015 because of his conditions. Tr. 270.


         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 significant numbers 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 April 5, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from April 1, 2015 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2015, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 17.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine; degenerative joint disease of the knee; sleep apnea; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. Tr. 19.

         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. 20.

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

[T]he claimant can lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and frequently. He can stand or walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, with an option to sit or stand at will. The claimant can frequently climb sta[i]rs or ramps, but may not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant may occasionally kneel, stoop, and crawl. The claimant may not operate heavy machinery and equipment, but may operate motor vehicles frequently. He may not be exposed to unprotected heights. The claimant may have frequent exposure to wetness or humidity, but must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants. He may frequently operate foot controls. The claimant can perform simple, repetitive tasks, and occasional detailed work. He may have superficial, brief contact with the general public and coworkers.

Tr. 22. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as welder, irrigation system installer, automobile detailer, construction worker, cook, and forest firefighter and found that he ...

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