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Daniel M. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

December 3, 2019

ERIC DANIEL M., Plaintiff,



         BEFORE THE COURT are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 10 and 11. This matter was submitted for consideration without oral argument. The Plaintiff is represented by Attorney Dana C. Madsen. The Defendant is represented by Special Assistant United States Attorney Lars J. Nelson. The Court has reviewed the administrative record, the parties' completed briefing, and is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 10, and DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 11.


         Plaintiff Eric Daniel M.[2] filed for supplemental security income and disability insurance benefits on August 25, 2014, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2013. Tr. 242-48, 251-57. Benefits were denied initially, Tr. 145-51, and upon reconsideration, Tr. 154-59. A hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) was conducted on November 17, 2016, and a supplemental hearing was conducted on July 12, 2017. Tr. 31-95. Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at both hearings. Id. The ALJ denied benefits, Tr. 7-30, and the Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1. The matter is now before this court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g); 1383(c)(3).


         The facts of the case are set forth in the administrative hearing and transcripts, the ALJ's decision, and the briefs of Plaintiff and the Commissioner. Only the most pertinent facts are summarized here.

         Plaintiff was 45 years old at the time of the first hearing. See Tr. 244. He graduated from high school and attended some college. Tr. 46. He has a caregiver, paid for by DSHS, that comes four days a week for five to six hours per day. Tr. 80. Plaintiff has work history as a cook, kitchen helper, concession manager, and caregiver. Tr. 46, 87-88. Plaintiff testified that he stopped working because he wasn't able to stand; but the record also indicated that he stopped working after he was put on administrative leave for three years after being charged with a DUI. Tr. 44.

         Plaintiff reported that he could not work because of pain and swelling in his feet due to “chronic non-healing fractures, ” pain in his hands, shoulder pain, anxiety, and depression. Tr. 52-55, 78-81, 84-85. He testified he can stand for three or four minutes, lift ten pounds, and walk “maybe” 50 feet before his feet start swelling and he needs to sit down. Tr. 55, 59-61. He testified that he went to physical therapy but could not continue because of swelling in his feet. Tr. 50. Plaintiff reported that he elevates his feet to relieve the swelling a couple of times a day, for between a half an hour to a couple of hours. Tr. 60.


         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. 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).


         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), 1382c(a)(3)(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), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         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), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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), 416.920(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 ...

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