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Allen M. v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

October 4, 2019

ALLEN M., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in assessing the medical evidence, and in discounting his testimony and the lay testimony.[1] (Dkt. # 14 at 2.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff was born in 1956, has a high school diploma and a year of college education, and previously worked as a commercial fisherman and more recently worked on his own farm. AR at 45, 193, 673-74. Plaintiff's income records last show gainful employment in 1995, but Plaintiff reports working until 2005. Id. at 185, 193.

         In October 2012, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of December 31, 2005. AR at 174-80. Plaintiff's application was denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 96-99, 103-06, 111-13. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on September 16, 2014 (id. at 40-68), the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 19-34. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (id. at 1-6), and Plaintiff sought judicial review. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington reversed the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. Id. at 733-43.

         A different ALJ held a hearing on April 13, 2018 (AR at 663-99), and subsequently issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled.[2] Id. at 632-53. Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [3] the ALJ found:

Step one: Plaintiff has worked since his 2012 application date, but never reported his income and therefore it cannot be determined whether his work constitutes substantial gainful activity. Thus, the ALJ continued on with the sequential evaluation process.
Step two: Plaintiff's degenerative disc disease, chronic pain syndrome, migraines, left shoulder osteoarthritis and tendonitis, adhesive capsulitis and rotator cuff impingement syndrome status post manipulation under anesthesia, status post aneurysm, major depressive disorder, and mild cognitive disorder are severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments do not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[4]
RFC: Plaintiff can perform medium work with additional limitations: he can frequently climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can frequently reach in all directions bilaterally. He must avoid concentrated exposure to vibration and hazards. He is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks consistent with unskilled work. He is limited to low-stress work, which is defined as work requiring few decisions/changes. He can have no public contact and only superficial contact with coworkers and occasional contact with supervisors.
Step four: Plaintiff has no past relevant work.
Step five: As there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, Plaintiff is not disabled.

Id. at 632-53.

         Plaintiff now appeals the final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits when the ALJ's findings are based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Bayliss v. Barnhart, 427 F.3d 1211, 1214 (9th Cir. 2005). As a general principle, an ALJ's error may be deemed harmless where it is “inconsequential to the ultimate nondisability determination.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1115 (9th Cir. 2012) (cited sources omitted). The Court looks to “the record as a whole to determine whether the error alters the outcome of the case.” Id.

         “Substantial evidence” is more than a scintilla, less than a preponderance, and 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); Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). The ALJ is responsible for determining credibility, resolving conflicts in medical testimony, and resolving any other ambiguities that might exist. Andrews v. Shalala, 53 F.3d 1035, 1039 (9th Cir. 1995). While the Court is required to examine the record as a whole, it may neither reweigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, it is the Commissioner's conclusion that must be upheld. Id.


         A. The ALJ Did Not Err in Assessing the Medical Evidence

         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assessment of a number of medical opinions, each of which the Court will address in turn.

         1. ...

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