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David B. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

November 18, 2019

DAVID B., [1]Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [2] Defendant.

          ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ECF Nos. 13, 15

          MARY K. DIMKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 13, 15. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 4. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiff's motion, ECF No. 13, and grants Defendant's motion, ECF No. 15.

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A district court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is governed by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review under § 405(g) is limited; 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 1153, 1158 (9th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence” means “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. at 1159 (quotation and citation omitted). Stated differently, substantial evidence equates to “more than a mere scintilla[, ] but less than a preponderance.” Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In determining whether the standard has been satisfied, a reviewing court must consider the entire record as a whole rather than searching for supporting evidence in isolation. Id.

         In reviewing a denial of benefits, a district court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Edlund v. Massanari, 253 F.3d 1152, 1156 (9th Cir. 2001). 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). Further, a district court “may not reverse an ALJ's decision on account of an error that is harmless.” Id. An error is harmless “where it is inconsequential to the [ALJ's] ultimate nondisability determination.” Id. at 1115 (quotation and citation omitted). The party appealing the ALJ's decision generally bears the burden of establishing that it was harmed. Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409-10 (2009).

         FIVE-STEP EVALUATION PROCESS

         A claimant must satisfy two conditions to be considered “disabled” within the meaning of the Social Security Act. First, the claimant must be “unable 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). Second, the claimant's impairment must be “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner has established a five-step sequential analysis to determine whether a claimant satisfies the above criteria. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in “substantial gainful activity, ” the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         If the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the analysis proceeds to step two. At this step, the Commissioner considers the severity of the claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant suffers from “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, ” the analysis proceeds to step three. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If the claimant's impairment does not satisfy this severity threshold, however, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairment to severe impairments recognized by the Commissioner to be so severe as to preclude a person from engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment is as severe or more severe than one of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must find the claimant disabled and award benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

         If the severity of the claimant's impairment does not meet or exceed the severity of the enumerated impairments, the Commissioner must pause to assess the claimant's “residual functional capacity.” Residual functional capacity (RFC), defined generally as the claimant's ability to perform physical and mental work activities on a sustained basis despite his or her limitations, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1), is relevant to both the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis.

         At step four, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing work that he or she has performed in the past (past relevant work). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). If the claimant is incapable of performing such work, the analysis proceeds to step five.

         At step five, the Commissioner considers whether, in view of the claimant's RFC, the claimant is capable of performing other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). In making this determination, the Commissioner must also consider vocational factors such as the claimant's age, education, and past work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). If the claimant is capable of adjusting to other work, the Commissioner must find that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1). If the claimant is not capable of adjusting to other work, the analysis concludes with a finding that the claimant is disabled and is therefore entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)(1).

         The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four above. Tackett v. Apfel, 180 F.3d 1094, 1098 (9th Cir. 1999). If the analysis proceeds to step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to 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); Beltran v. Astrue, 700 F.3d 386, 389 (9th Cir. 2012).

         If the claimant is found disabled at any point in this process, the ALJ must also determine if the disability continues through the date of the decision. The Commissioner has established a multi-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a person's disability continues or ends. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594. This multi-step continuing disability review process is similar to the five-step sequential evaluation process used to evaluate initial claims, with additional attention as to whether there has been medical improvement. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 with § 404.1594(f). A claimant is disabled only if his impairment is “of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work[, ] but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Determination of whether a person's eligibility for disability benefits continues or ends involves an eight-step process under Title II. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f). The first step addresses whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(1). If not, step two determines whether the claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the severity of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(2). If the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the third step addresses whether there has been medical improvement in the claimant's condition. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(3). Medical improvement is “any decrease in the medical severity” of the impairment that was present at the time the individual was disabled or continued to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(b)(1).

         If there has been medical improvement, at step four, it is determined whether such improvement is related to the claimant's ability to do work-that is, whether there has been an increase in the individual's residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(4). If the answer to step four is yes, the Commissioner skips to step six and inquires whether all of the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe. Id. If there has been no medical improvement or medical improvement is not related to the claimant's ability to work, the evaluation proceeds to step five. Id.

         At step five, if there has been no medical improvement or the medical improvement is not related to the ability to do work, it is determined whether any of the special exceptions apply. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(5). At step six, if medical improvement is shown to be related to the claimant's ability to work, it is determined whether the claimant's current impairments in combination are severe-that is, whether they impose more than a minimal limitation on the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(6). If the step six finding is that the claimant's current impairments are not severe, the claimant is no longer considered to be disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(6).

         If the step six finding is that the claimant's current impairments are severe, at step seven, a residual functional capacity finding is made and it is determined whether the claimant can perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f)(7), 404.1560 (2012); see also SSR 82-61, 1982 WL 31387.

         Finally, at step eight, if the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the Commissioner must prove there is alternative work in the national economy that the claimant can perform given his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(f)(8). If the claimant cannot perform a significant number of other jobs, he remains disabled despite medical improvement; if, however, he can perform a significant number of other jobs, disability ceases. Id.

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         On November 7, 2015, Plaintiff applied for Title II disability insurance benefits alleging a disability onset date of November 2, 2015. Tr. 227-28. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 138-40, 142-44. Plaintiff appeared before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on May 23, 2017. Tr. 41-105. On August 9, 2017, the ALJ granted Plaintiff's claim for benefits from November 2, 2015 through May 1, 2017 and denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits from May 2, 2017 through August 9, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. Tr. 12-37.

         At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 2015, the alleged onset date. Tr. 19. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments from November 2, 2015 through May 1, 2017, the period during which he was under a disability: cervical spine arthritis, sleep apnea, asthma/sinusitis, and obesity. Tr. 20. The ALJ found that, from November 2, 2015 through May 1, 2017, Plaintiff's cervical spine arthritis medically equaled the criteria of Listing 1.04A of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Tr. 25. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from November 2, 2015 through May 1, 2017. Tr. 26.

         Because the ALJ found Plaintiff was disabled, the ALJ then considered whether the disability continued through the date of the decision. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 2, 2015, the alleged onset date. Tr. 19. At step two, the ALJ found that, beginning on May 2, 2017, Plaintiff did not have an impairment that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 26. At step three, the ALJ found that medical improvement occurred as of May 2, 2017. Tr. 26. At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff's medical improvement was related to his ability to work. Tr. 27. The ALJ skipped to step six and found that Plaintiff's severe impairments remained the same as those present during the period of disability. Tr. 26. At step seven, the ALJ then found that, beginning May 2, 2017, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work, with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff has the] ability to lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, and the ability to sit and to stand/walk each for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. However, [Plaintiff] is restricted to occasionally stooping, crouching, crawling, and climbing ramps and stairs. On a frequent basis, [Plaintiff] is able to kneel and balance. He cannot climb ladders or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants, the need to avoid heavy industrial vibration, and the need to have no exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery[.] The residual functional capacity includes occasional overhead reaching, frequent reaching bilaterally within 18 inches of the body, and occasional reaching 18 inches outside of the body.

Tr. 27.

         The ALJ then determined that, beginning May 2, 2017, Plaintiff was able to perform his past relevant work as a transportation agent. Tr. 30. Finally, at step eight, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, residual functional capacity, and testimony from a vocational expert, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as small products assembler, usher, counter clerk, order clerk, and microfilm document preparer. Tr. 31. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's disability ended on May 2, 2017. Tr. 32.

         On January 29, 2019, the Appeals Council denied review, Tr. 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of ...


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