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Norman S. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 9, 2019

NORMAN S., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROSANNA MALOUF PETERSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 15 and 16. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. The plaintiff is represented by Attorney Chad L. Hatfield. The defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Justin L. Martin. The Court has reviewed the administrative record, the parties' completed briefing, and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 16, and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 15.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Norman S.[1] protectively filed for disability insurance benefits on January 24, 2014. Tr. 140-41. Plaintiff alleged an onset date of January 1, 2014. See Tr. 379. Benefits were denied initially, Tr. 88-90, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 92-93. Plaintiff appeared for a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on July 7, 2017. Tr. 33-67. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Id. The ALJ denied benefits, Tr. 12-32, and the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1. The matter is now before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         BACKGROUND

         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner. Only the most pertinent facts are summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 54 years old at the time of the hearing. See Tr. 140. He completed four or more years of college. Tr. 384. During the relevant time period he lived with his wife. Plaintiff has work history as a tow truck owner/operator. Tr. 39, 489. He testified that he could not work during the relevant adjudicatory period because of diabetes, anxiety, and fatigue. Tr. 45-46.

         Plaintiff testified that he has anxiety attacks that cause him to “shut down” and isolate himself for up to a day at a time; he is tired “all the time” because he only gets two to three hours of sleep a night; he is overly emotional; and he gets “massive” headaches when he is in public. Tr. 45-47, 51-53. He reported that over the past few years, he has started to have problems being around groups of people, and could only spend 10 minutes in Wal-Mart before he had to leave. Tr. 48-50. Plaintiff testified that he could not work in an office full-time, because “it's claustrophobic.” Tr. 55. He reported that he has a service dog who provides anxiety comfort, and helps him when he has blood sugar issues or trouble walking. Tr. 55-56.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; the Commissioner's decision will be disturbed “only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or is based on legal error.” Hill v. Astrue, 698 F.3d 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. If the evidence in the record “is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, [the court] must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to establish that (1) the claimant is capable of performing other work; and (2) such work “exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful since January 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. Tr. 17. At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); anxiety; depression. Tr. 18. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 19. The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has the RFC

to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: He can have occasional contact with the general public and occasional brief contact with supervisors. He can perform routine and predictable work with ordinary production requirements.

Tr. 20-21. At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a tow truck owner/operator. Tr. 26. In the alternative, at step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff also can perform, including: mail clerk, collator operator, and printed circuit board assembler. Tr. 26-27. On that basis, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2014, through the date of the decision. Tr. 27.

         ISSUES

         Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying her disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. ECF No. 15. Plaintiff raises the following issues for this Court's review:

1. Whether the ALJ erred at step two;
2. Whether the ALJ erred at step ...

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