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Jolene W. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

June 11, 2019

JOLENE W., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 15. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Jolene W. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Heather L. Griffith 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 an application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) on November 7, 2014, Tr. 120, and an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on December 29, 2015, Tr. 179. She alleged her disability began on August 1, 2013, Tr. 224, 240, due to bipolar disorder, personality disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and cyclic vomiting syndrome, Tr. 266. The DIB application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 151-53, 158-59. The SSI application was consolidated with the DIB application at the hearing level. Tr. 179. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on November 16, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Minh Vu, M.D., psychological expert Marian Martin, Ph.D., and vocational expert Sharon Walter. Tr. 40-73. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on January 13, 2017. Tr. 19-33. The Appeals Council denied review on March 26, 2018. Tr. 1-5. The ALJ's January 13, 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 21, 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 37 years old at the alleged date of onset. Tr. 224. She completed her GED in 2009. Tr. 267. Her reported work history includes the jobs of caregiver, fast food worker, housekeeper, appointment setter, and telemarketer. Tr. 267, 282-87. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that she stopped working on August 13, 2013 because of her conditions. Tr. 266.


         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 her from engaging in her previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot do her 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, she is found “disabled”. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On January 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from August 1, 2013 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013, the alleged date of onset. Tr. 21.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: cyclic vomiting syndrome; right shoulder tendinopathy; migraines; bipolar disorder; PTSD; ...

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