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Christopher D. P. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

August 21, 2019

CHRISTOPHER D. P., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'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. 13, 15. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. Plaintiff is represented by attorney Dana C. Madsen. Defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Jeffrey E. Staples. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's Motion, ECF No. 13, is denied and Defendant's Motion, ECF No. 15, is granted.

         JURISDICTION

         Plaintiff Christopher D. P.[2] (Plaintiff), filed for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) on August 9, 2001. Tr. 16. Benefits were awarded as of November 15, 1999. Tr. 16. On September 30, 2014, after a periodic review, it was determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of October 1, 2014. Tr. 96-97, 131-36. The decision was upheld on reconsideration after a hearing by a state agency hearing officer on June 10, 2015. Tr. 98-125, 138-62. Upon further reconsideration, the state agency hearing officer revised the disability cessation date to August 1, 2015. Tr. 149, 162.

         Plaintiff requested further review and appeared at a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on January 6, 2017. Tr. 60-91. On April 19, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, Tr.16-29, and on June 8, 2018, the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-5. The matter is now before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 1383(c)(3).

         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, and are therefore only summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 40 years old at the time of the hearing. Tr. 71. He has a high school diploma. Tr. 71. He last worked in 2000. Tr. 72. He was fired from his last job. Tr. 72. He was admitted Eastern State Hospital four times in 2001. Tr. 72-73, 307. He was hospitalized for major depression, anxiety, PTSD, and intermittent explosive disorder. Tr. 72. He testified his symptoms have gotten worse over the years. Tr. 73. Medication has helped “very little.” Tr. 74. He testified medication makes his anger worse and gives him nightmares. Tr. 74. He is depressed every day and is always anxious. Tr. 75. He has flashbacks due to PTSD at least three times per week. Tr. 76. He has major insomnia. Tr. 76. When he is under high stress or if someone argues with him, he tends to explode. Tr. 76-77. He might yell, throw things, or become physically violent. Tr. 77.

         Plaintiff testified that he has problems with his back, knees, and angina. Tr. 79. His chest pain occurs one to two times per week for ten to 15 minutes at a time. Tr. 80. He has back pain every day. Tr. 80. He lies in bed from four to six hours, two to three times per week, sometimes more often. Tr. 80. Walking hurts due to pain in Plaintiff's knees. Tr. 81. He has gained weight over the years. Tr. 84-85. Pain makes it difficult to exercise. Tr. 85.

         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. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). 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).

         SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         Once eligibility for disability benefits is established, the Commissioner periodically reviews whether entitlement to benefits continues. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994. The multi-step review process is similar to the five-step sequential evaluation process for evaluating initial claims but requires the Commissioner to determine whether there has been medical improvement. Compare 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 with §§ 404.1594(f), 416.994(b)(5).

         Review of ongoing eligibility for disability benefits involves an eight-step process.[3] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(1)-(8), 416.994(b)(5)(i)-(viii). At step one for Title II claims only, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1). If so, the Commissioner must determine that disability has ended. Id. Substantial gainful activity is not considered at step one of a Title XVI eligibility review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.416(b)(5)(i).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two for Title II claims. This is the first step for Title XVI claims. At this step, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(2), 416.994(b)(5)(i). If the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, then disability continues. Id.

         If the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, at step three for Title II claims and step two for Title XVI claims, the Commissioner determines whether there has been medical improvement in the claimant's condition. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(3), 416.994(b)(5)(ii). Medical improvement is “any decrease in the medical severity” of the impairment that was present at the time the individual was disabled or continued to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(b)(1), 416.994(b)(1)(i).

         If there has been medical improvement, at step four for Title II claims and step three for Title XVI claims, the Commissioner determines whether such improvement is related to the claimant's ability to do work; that is, whether there has been an increase in the individual's residual functional capacity based on the most recent favorable determination. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(4), 416.994(b)(5)(iii). If the answer at this step is yes, the Commissioner skips to step six for Title II claims and step five for Title XVI claims and inquires whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe. Id. If there has been no medical improvement or medical improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to work, the evaluation proceeds to the next step. Id.

         At step five for Title II claims and step four for Title XVI claims, if there has been no medical improvement or the medical improvement is not related to the ability to do work, the Commissioner determines whether special exceptions apply. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(5), 416.994(b)(5)(iv); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d) and (e), 416.994(b)(3) and (b)(4). The analysis proceeds to the next step if one of the first group of exceptions applies; disability ends if one of the second group of exceptions applies; and if none applies, disability continues. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(5), 416.994(b)(5)(iv).

         At step six for Title II claims and step five for Title XVI claims, if medical improvement is shown to be related to the claimant's ability to work, or if one of the first group of exceptions to medical improvement applies, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe; that is, whether they impose more than a minimal limitation on the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(6), 416.994(b)(5)(v); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522, 416.922. If the finding is that the claimant's current impairments are not severe, the claimant is no longer considered to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(6), 416.994(b)(5)(v).

         If the finding is that the claimant's current impairments are severe, at step seven for Title II claims and step six for Title XVI claims, the Commissioner makes a residual functional capacity finding and determines whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(7), 404.1560, 416.994(b)(5)(vi), 416.960; see also S.S.R. 82-61. If the claimant can perform past relevant work, the Commissioner will find that disability has ended. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(7), 416.994(b)(5)(vi).

         Finally, at step eight for Title II claims and step seven for Title XVI claims, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the Commissioner determines whether there is other work available in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(8), 416.994(b)(5)(vii). If there is other work that the claimant can perform, the Commissioner will find that disability ...


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