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James W. R. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

September 30, 2019

JAMES W. R., Plaintiff,



         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, ECF Nos. 12 & 16. Plaintiff brings this action seeking judicial review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner's final decision, which denied his applications for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 1381-1383F, and his application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401-434. See Administrative Record (“AR”) at 1-3. After reviewing the administrative record and briefs filed by the parties, the Court is now fully informed. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         Plaintiff filed his application for Disability Insurance Benefits on January 10, 2014, and his application for Supplemental Security Income on March 30, 2016. AR 18. In both applications, his alleged onset date of disability is November 2, 2012. Id. Plaintiff's applications were initially denied on September 4, 2014, and on reconsideration on January 7, 2016. Id. A hearing with Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Marie Palachuk occurred on December 7, 2016. Id. On January 13, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and was therefore ineligible for Disability Insurance Benefits or Social Security Income. AR 18-36. On April 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thus making the ALJ's ruling the “final decision” of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.

         Plaintiff timely filed the present action challenging the denial of benefits, on June 7, 2018. ECF Nos. 1 and 3. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims are properly before this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability 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), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant shall be determined to be under a disability only if the claimant's impairments are of such severity that the claimant is not only unable to do his previous work, but cannot, considering claimant's age, education, and work experience, engage in any other substantial gainful work that exists in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential evaluation process (“the Process”) for determining whether a claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) & 416.920(a)(4); Lounsburry v. Barnhart, 468 F.3d 1111, 1114 (9th Cir. 2006).

         Step one inquires whether the claimant is presently engaged in “substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b) & 416.920(b). Substantial gainful activity is defined as significant physical or mental activities done or usually done for profit. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1572 & 416.972. If the claimant is engaged in substantial activity, he or she is not entitled to disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 & 416.920(b). If not, the ALJ proceeds to step two.

         Step two asks whether the claimant has a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) & 416.920(c). A severe impairment is one that has lasted or is expected to last for at least twelve months, and must be proven by objective medical evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508-09 & 416.908-09. If the claimant does not have a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, the disability claim is denied, and no further evaluative steps are required. Otherwise, the evaluation proceeds to the third step.

         Step three involves a determination of whether any of the claimant's severe impairments “meets or equals” one of the listed impairments acknowledged by the Commissioner to be sufficiently severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526 & 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926; 20 C.F.R. § 404 Subpt. P. App. 1 (“the Listings”). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, the claimant is per se disabled and qualifies for benefits. Id. If the claimant is not per se disabled, the evaluation proceeds to the fourth step.

         Step four examines whether the claimant's residual functional capacity enables the claimant to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f) & 416.920(e)-(f). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, the claimant is not entitled to disability benefits and the inquiry ends. Id.

         Step five shifts the burden to the Commissioner to prove that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(f), 404.1520(g), 404.1560(c) & 416.912(f), 416.920(g), 416.960(c). To meet this burden, the Commissioner must 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); 416.960(c)(2); Beltran v. Astrue, 676 F.3d 1203, 1206 (9th Cir. 2012).


         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited, and 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 1144, 1158-59 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing § 405(g)). Substantial evidence means “more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Sandgathe v. Chater, 108 F.3d 978, 980 (9th Cir.1997) (quoting Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995)) (internal quotation marks omitted). In determining whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence, “a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole and may not affirm simply by isolating a specific quantum of supporting evidence.” Robbins v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 466 F.3d 880, 882 (9th Cir. 2006) (quoting Hammock v. Bowen, 879 F.2d 498, 501 (9th Cir. 1989)).

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ. Matney v. Sullivan, 981 F.2d 1016, 1019 (9th Cir. 1992). 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); see also Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002) (if the “evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the conclusion must be upheld”). Moreover, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Molina, 674 F.3d at 1111. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115. The burden of showing that an error is harmful generally falls upon the party appealing the ALJ's decision. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).


         The facts of the case are set forth in detail in the transcript of proceedings and only briefly summarized here. Plaintiff was 44 years old on the alleged disability onset date. AR 34. He has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. Plaintiff has past relevant work as a truck driver, truck driver helper, janitor, and heavy equipment operator. Id. //


         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not been under a disability within the meaning of the Act at any time from November 2, 2012, the alleged onset date, through January 13, 2017, the date the ALJ issued her decision. AR 18-36.

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 2012, the alleged onset date. (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.). AR 20.

         At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obstructive sleep apnea; status post lap band surgery; status post left shoulder arthroscopy; psoriatic arthritis; asthma; degenerative disc and joint disease - lumbar spine; status post right carpal tunnel release surgery; very mild left carpal tunnel syndrome; degenerative disc disease - cervical spine; and cyclothymic disorder (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)). Id.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. AR 21.

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416. 967(b), with the following exceptions: he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or stairs; he could never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he could occasionally reach overhead with his left upper extremity; he should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme temperatures, vibration, and respiratory irritants; he should avoid all exposure to hazards; he could understand, remember, and carry out simple, routine, and repetitive tasks or instructions; he could maintain attention and concentration on simple, routine tasks for two-hour intervals between regularly scheduled breaks during a full-time work schedule; and he would require a predictable, routine environment with no more than occasional and simple changes. AR 26.

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform past relevant work as a truck driver, truck driver helper, janitor, and heavy equipment operator. AR 34.

         At step five, the ALJ found that in light of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. AR 34-35. These include order clerk - food and beverage, charge account clerk, and electrical worker. AR 35.


         Plaintiff argues that the Commissioner's decision is not free of legal error and not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, he argues the ALJ reversibly erred by: (1) improperly rejecting Plaintiff's subjective complaints; (2) improperly rejecting the opinions of Plaintiff's medical providers; (3) improperly rejecting Plaintiff's severe impairments at step two of the Process; (4) failing to find Plaintiff's impairments meet or equal a Listing at step three of the Process; and (5) failing to conduct a proper step five analysis. ECF No. 12 at 6-7.

         VII. ...

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