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Debra S. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Washington

December 13, 2019

DEBRA S., [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. 14, 15

          MARY K. DIMKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 15. The parties consented to proceed before a magistrate judge. ECF No. 6. The Court, having reviewed the administrative record and the parties' briefing, is fully informed. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Plaintiffs motion, ECF No. 14, 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).

         ALJ'S FINDINGS

         On May 20, 2016, Plaintiff applied for Title II disability insurance benefits alleging a disability onset date of March 26, 2015. Tr. 167-70. The application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 92-98, 100-06. Plaintiff appeared before an administrative law judge (ALJ) on February 7, 2018. Tr. 35-63. On April 4, 2018, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claim. Tr. 15-34.

         At step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 26, 2015. Tr. 20. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: contusion right foot, sprain left foot, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), and gout. Tr. 20.

         At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. Tr. 22. The ALJ then concluded that Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] can occasionally lift and carry a maximum of 10 pounds and can frequently lift and carry a maximum of less than 10 pounds. She can stand and walk for two hours total in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. She can sit for six hours total in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks. [Plaintiff] can occasionally balance; stoop; crouch; kneel; crawl; and climb ramps and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] can never have exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights or dangerous heavy machinery.

Tr. 23.

         At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a program aid and employment specialist. Tr. 27. Alternatively, at step five, the ALJ found that considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and testimony from the vocational expert, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, such as charge account clerk and document preparer. Tr. 27-28. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a ...


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