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Deneca J. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 3, 2019

DENECA J., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 14, 15. Attorney D. James Tree represents Deneca J. (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. 7. After reviewing the administrative record and the briefs filed by the parties, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income on February 10, 2017, alleging disability since February 1, 2016, due to PTSD, major depressive disorder, learning disability/reading disorder, obesity, personality disorder, and ADHD. Tr. 130-31. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 156-64, 168-74. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Stewart Stallings held a hearing on April 18, 2018, Tr. 666-715, and issued an unfavorable decision on May 31, 2018, Tr. 15-25. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council and the Appeals Council denied the request on July 31, 2018. Tr. 1-5. The ALJ's May 2018 decision became the final decision of the Commissioner, which is appealable to the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff filed this action for judicial review on September 26, 2018. ECF No. 1, 4.


         Plaintiff was born in 1981 and was 35 years old as of the filing of her application. Tr. 24. She was in some special education classes as a child and dropped out of high school in the tenth grade when she became pregnant. Tr. 492. She was unable to obtain her GED. Tr. 594, 701. She has never worked, other than some babysitting in 2001. Tr. 44, 308. Her mental health issues significantly worsened following Child Protective Services intervening to remove her children from her custody. Tr. 371, 376, 690.


         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 ALJ's determinations of law are reviewed de novo, with deference to a reasonable interpretation of the applicable 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; Morgan v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 599 (9th Cir. 1999). 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, 1229-1230 (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); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-142 (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 1098-1099. This burden is met once a claimant establishes that a physical or mental impairment prevents the claimant from engaging in past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If a claimant cannot perform 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 a claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work in the national economy, the claimant will be found disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(v).


         On May 25, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 10, 2017, the application date. Tr. 18.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: substance abuse, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline ...

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