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Stacie B. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 13, 2019

STACIE B., Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF Social Security,[1] Defendant.



         BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF No. 13, 14. Attorney Dana Chris Madsen represents Stacie B. (Plaintiff); Special Assistant United States Attorney Michael Sinclair Howard represents the Commissioner of Social Security (Defendant). The parties have consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 9. 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 19, 2015, alleging disability since 1999, [2] due to anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression, and diabetes. Tr. 84. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 137-40, 145-47. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Marie Palachuk held a hearing on May 25, 2017, Tr. 41-73, and issued an unfavorable decision on September 12, 2017, Tr. 16-32. Plaintiff requested review from the Appeals Council and the Appeals Council denied the request on June 22, 2018. Tr. 1-6. The ALJ's September 2017 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 August 15, 2018. ECF No. 1, 4.


         Plaintiff was born in 1963 and was 51 years old as of the filing of her application. Tr. 30. She dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and obtained her GED. Tr. 55, 322. She worked a number of sporadic jobs, the longest being working in a window and door factory for two years in the 1990s. Tr. 233, 322. In the late 1990s she suddenly developed depression and anxiety, which she has described as a chemical imbalance. Tr. 408, 444. She eventually took a voluntary layoff from her job, and moved in with her parents. Tr. 408. After her mother's death in 1998, she and her father continued to reside together, caring for one another. Id. Plaintiff has not worked since 1999. Tr. 322.


         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 September 12, 2017, 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 19, 2015, the application date. Tr. 19.

         At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the cervical spine, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, major depressive disorder, and social phobia. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. Tr. 19-22.

         The ALJ assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) and found she could perform a restricted range of light exertional work, with the following specific limitations:

The claimant can occasionally lift and carry a maximum of 20 pounds and can frequently lift and carry a maximum of 10 pounds. She can stand and walk for a total of four hours in an eight-hour workday with nor1mal breaks and alternate between sitting and standing at 60-90 minute intervals. She can frequently reach overhead bilaterally. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can never have concentrated exposure to extreme cold or industrial vibration, and she can never have exposure to hazards. She can understand, remember and carry out simple, routine and repetitive tasks and maintain attention and concentration for the two-hour intervals between regularly scheduled breaks. She can never perform work involving fast-paced production (defined as assembly ...

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