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Rohm G. v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

October 9, 2019

ROHM G., Plaintiff,


          The Honorable Richard A. Jones United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by rejecting his testimony and several medical opinions, and erred in determining his residual functional capacity. Dkt. 17, 19. As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff is currently 58 years old, has at least a high school education, and has no past relevant work. Dkt. 15, Admin. Record (AR) 60. Plaintiff applied for benefits in November 2011, alleging disability beginning November 4, 2008. AR 119. He later amended the alleged onset date to June 30, 2010. AR 79. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially, on reconsideration, and in a 2013 ALJ decision. AR 130, 131, 25-42. On appeal to this court, the 2013 decision was reversed for failure to properly consider the opinions of two state agency nonexamining psychologists and remanded for further administrative proceedings. AR 687-98. On remand, after the ALJ conducted hearings in May 2016 and January 2018, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. AR 613, 629, 595-606.


         Plaintiff's date last insured was December 31, 2011. Using the five-step disability evaluation process, [1] the ALJ found that for the relevant period from June 2010 through December 2011:

Step one: Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity throughout the period and was therefore not disabled. In the alternative, the ALJ continued with the sequential disability evaluation.
Step two: Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Step three: These impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment.[2]
Residual Functional Capacity (RFC): Plaintiff could perform work at all exertional levels. He could perform simple, routine tasks and follow short, simple instructions. He could perform simple duties that could be learned on-the-job in a short period and required little or no judgment. He had an average ability to maintain attention, concentration, persistence, and pace within employers' customary tolerances. He could handle supervisor contact that was minimal, i.e., not occurring regularly. This did not preclude being in proximity to supervisors or simple, superficial exchanges. Plaintiff could work in proximity to a few coworkers but not in a cooperative or team effort. He could not deal with the public as an essential element of the work process, but incidental, superficial contact was not precluded. Plaintiff required a predictable work environment with few work setting changes.
Step four: Plaintiff had no past relevant work.
Step five: Because jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could have performed, he was not disabled.

AR 599-606. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. AR 585-86.


         This Court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of Social Security benefits only if the ALJ's decision is based on legal error or not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Trevizo v. Berryhill, 871 F.3d 664, 674 (9th Cir. 2017). Each of an ALJ's findings must be supported by substantial evidence. Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 721 (9th Cir. 1998). “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 evaluating evidence, 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 ALJ. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954, 957 (9th Cir. 2002). When the evidence is susceptible to more than one interpretation, the ALJ's interpretation must be upheld if rational. Burch v. Barnhart, 400 F.3d 676, 680-81 (9th Cir. 2005). This Court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Molina v. Astrue, 674 F.3d 1104, 1111 (9th Cir. 2012).

         A. Step One

         Plaintiff received a subsidy of $750 per month in rent reduction in exchange for “being an onsite contact person” at the rental complex. AR 85, 229. He used money from his mother to pay the balance of his rent, which was over $1300. AR 85. The ALJ, however, found that Plaintiff received “free rent” that exceeded the substantial gainful activity level of $1000 per month. AR 599. The Commissioner concedes that the ALJ erred at step one, and thus this Court must review the ALJ's evaluation at later steps in the disability evaluation process. Dkt. 18 at 6.

         B. ...

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