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Donges v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 14, 2019

JUSTIN D., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 14. Attorney Dana C. Madsen represents Justin D. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Alexis Toma 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 September 16, 2014, Tr. 115, alleging his disability began on May 1, 2013, Tr. 240, due to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, and lower back pain, Tr. 315. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 151-54, 158-60. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Lori Freund held a hearing on September 22, 2016 and heard testimony from Plaintiff, medical expert Harvey Alpern, M.D., psychological expert Margaret Moore, Ph.D., and vocational expert Fred Cutler. Tr. 44-95. The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on August 14, 2017. Tr. 18-33. The Appeals Council denied review on May 24, 2018. Tr. 1-5. The ALJ's August 14, 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 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 29 years old at the date of application. Tr. 240. Plaintiff attended special education courses, and the highest grade he completed was the Ninth. Tr. 316. His reported work history includes the jobs of cashier, fast food worker, and construction laborer. Tr. 316, 323. When applying for benefits Plaintiff reported that he stopped working on April 30, 2013 because of his conditions. Tr. 315.


         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 him from engaging in his previous occupations. 20 C.F.R. § 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 (1) the claimant can make an adjustment to other work, and (2) the claimant can perform specific jobs that 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. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On August 14, 2017, the ALJ found that from September 16, 2014 through the date of the August 14, 2017 decision, Plaintiff was not disabled as the term is defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 16, 2014, the date of application. Tr. 20.

         At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, mild; obesity; polysubstance dependence (alcohol, cannabis, history of methamphetamine); personality disorder; antisocial/cluster B; and depression, unspecified. Tr. 20.

         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. 21.

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

The claimant can occasionally lift and carry a maximum of 20 pounds and can frequently lift and carry a maximum of 10 pounds. The claimant can sit for one hour at one time for a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. He requires a cane for ambulation. The claimant can stand and walk for one hour at a time for a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. The claimant can frequently use his left foot for operation of foot controls. He can occasionally stoop, balance, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant can occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant can perform simple and repetitive tasks. He can occasionally interact with coworkers and supervisors on a superficial basis, but he can never perform tandem tasks. He would work best away from the public. The claimant can tolerate occasional changes in work settings.

Tr. 23. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as fast-food worker, construction worker, cashier II, and car cleaner and found that he could not perform this past relevant work. Tr. 31.

         At step five, the ALJ determined that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, and based on the testimony of the vocational expert, there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy Plaintiff could perform, including the jobs of garment sorter, inspector-packer, and table worker. Tr. 32. The ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not under a disability ...

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