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Donald E v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 9, 2020

DONALD E., Plaintiff,




         Plaintiff seeks review of the denial of his applications for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. Plaintiff contends the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) erred in discounting his subjective testimony, assessing the medical evidence, and discounting the lay evidence.[1] (Dkt. # 9 at 2.) As discussed below, the Court AFFIRMS the Commissioner's final decision and DISMISSES the case with prejudice.


         Plaintiff was born in 1957, has a college degree, and has worked as an electronic technician, design engineer, software tester, fast-food cashier, and window washer. AR at 45-49. At the time of the most recent administrative hearing, Plaintiff was working as an in-home caregiver, but the ALJ found that this work did not meet the threshold of substantial gainful employment. Id. at 742-43.

         In October 2012, Plaintiff applied for benefits, alleging disability as of October 1, 2009. AR at 290-306. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing. Id. at 215-18, 224-30, 233-38. After the ALJ conducted a hearing on October 22, 2014 (id. at 77-109), the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. Id. at 13-27.

         The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR at 1-6), and Plaintiff requested 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 907-12. Given that Plaintiff had been found disabled as of December 25, 2014, based on a subsequent benefits application, the Appeals Council instructed the ALJ on remand to consider whether Plaintiff was disabled in the period before December 25, 2014, unless the ALJ found reason to reopen the award of benefits. Id. at 925-26.

         A different ALJ held an administrative hearing on November 16, 2017, and he ordered further development of the record, specifically related to Plaintiff's vocational history. AR at 767-814. That ALJ subsequently left the agency, and the case was transferred to a different ALJ, who held another hearing on October 2, 2018. Id. at 815-71.

         Utilizing the five-step disability evaluation process, [2] the ALJ issued a decision finding:

Step one: Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the adjudicated period (October 9, 2009, through December 24, 2014).
Step two: During the adjudicated period, Plaintiff's hepatitis C, status post interferon treatment, with fatigue, insomnia, and muscle fasciculations; hypothyroidism; mild peripheral neuropathy; and asthma were severe impairments.
Step three: These impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of a listed impairment during the adjudicated period.[3]
Residual Functional Capacity: During the adjudicated period, Plaintiff could perform light work with additional limitations: he could lift/carry 25 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently in an eight-hour workday. He could stand and/or walk for four hours and sit for eight hours in an eight-hour workday. He had to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and pulmonary irritants.
Step four: Plaintiff can perform past relevant work as a software engineer, electronics technician, and electronics assembler, and is therefore not disabled.

AR at 739-55. Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court. (Dkt. # 1.)


         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, ...

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