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Julie S. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 6, 2019

JULIE S., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 15. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Julie S. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Jacob P. Phillips 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 Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on August 26, 2015, Tr. 67, alleging disability since January of 2004, Tr. 170, due to a back injury, ankylosing spondylitis, degenerative disc disease, bone spurs in her back, spinal stenosis, nerve damage in her legs and feet, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia, Tr. 209. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 95-103, 107-13. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on May 18, 2017 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Lynn Jahnke, M.D., and vocational expert Sharon F. Welter. Tr. 40-66. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her date of onset to the date of application, August 26, 2015. Tr. 45. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 25, 2017. Tr. 20-31. The Appeals Council denied review on May 24, 2018. Tr. 1-3. The ALJ's July 25, 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 July 17, 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 44 years old at the date of application. Tr. 169. She reported that she completed one year of college in 2004. Tr. 210. Her reported work history includes jobs in assembly, as a cashier, as a custodian and in customer service. Tr. 192, 211. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that she stopped working on January 1, 2004 because of her conditions. Tr. 210.


         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. § 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. § 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On July 25, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act from August 26, 2015 through the date of the decision.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 26, 2015, the date of application. Tr. 22.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairment: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine. Tr. 22.

         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. 23.

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

Specifically, standing and walking are limited to one hour at a time and for no more than four hours per day (which is actually less limiting/restrictive than the requirements for sedentary work), and the claimant would need the ability to stand and stretch for approximately one minute every hour, after which she would sit back down at her workstation. Postural activities are limited to occasional except that the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds or crawl. In addition, the claimant would need to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures and industrial vibrations and all exposure to hazards.

Tr. 23. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as housekeeping cleaner and found that she could not perform ...

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