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Steven M. v. Saul

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

January 15, 2020

STEVEN M., Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER RE: SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY APPEAL

          Mary Alice Theiler United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff proceeds through counsel in his appeal of a final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (Commissioner). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) after a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Having considered the ALJ's decision, the administrative record (AR), and all memoranda of record, this matter is AFFIRMED.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff was born on XXXX, 1973.[1] He has a high school diploma and vocational training in security, and has worked as a security guard, retail clerk, and roofer. (AR 55, 134-38.)

         Plaintiff applied for SSI in September 2012. (See AR 235.) That application was denied and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. (AR 287-90, 299-308.)

         On February 21, 2014, ALJ Gene Duncan held a hearing, taking testimony from Plaintiff, a medical expert (ME), and a vocational expert (VE). (AR 75-119.) On November 14, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (AR 260-72.) Plaintiff timely appealed.

         The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review on January 14, 2016, and remanded the case for further proceedings. (AR 280-83.) The same ALJ held a hearing in December 2016 (AR 120-68), but then retired shortly thereafter. Plaintiff filed a stipulation agreeing to a closed period of benefits for September 12, 2012, through November 1, 2016. (AR 587.) No. such decision was entered, however, and ALJ Allen G. Erickson held another hearing on July 20, 2017. (AR 169-214.) The ALJ subsequently issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled at any time since his application date of September 13, 2012. (AR 15-37.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review (AR 6-11), and Plaintiff appealed this final decision of the Commissioner to this Court.

         JURISDICTION

         The Court has jurisdiction to review the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2000). At step one, it must be determined whether the claimant is gainfully employed. The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 13, 2012, the alleged onset date. (AR 18.) At step two, it must be determined whether a claimant suffers from a severe impairment. The ALJ found severe Plaintiff's lumbar spine degenerative disc disease with spondylolysis; bilateral knee degenerative joint disease with status post surgeries; migraine headaches; and obesity. (AR 18-20.) Step three asks whether a claimant's impairments meet or equal a listed impairment. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of a listed impairment. (AR 21.)

         If a claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Commissioner must assess residual functional capacity (RFC) and determine at step four whether the claimant has demonstrated an inability to perform past relevant work. The ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing a range of sedentary work, with the following exertional limitations: he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally. He can have occasional exposure to vibration, loud noise, bright lights, and extreme cold temperatures. He must use a cane when ambulating. (AR 21.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has no past relevant work. (AR 35.)

         If a claimant demonstrates an inability to perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate at step five that the claimant retains the capacity to make an adjustment to work that exists in significant levels in the national economy. With the assistance of a VE, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of transitioning to other representative occupations, such as document preparer, call-out operator, and final assembler. (AR 36-37.)

         This Court's review of the ALJ's decision is limited to whether the decision is in accordance with the law and the findings supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. See Penny v. Sullivan, 2 F.3d 953, 956 (9th Cir. 1993). Substantial evidence means more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance; it means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1989). If there is more than one rational interpretation, one of which supports the ALJ's decision, the Court must uphold that decision. Thomas v. Barnhart, 278 F.3d 947, 954 (9th Cir. 2002).

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in (1) discounting his subjective symptom testimony, (2) assessing certain medical evidence and opinions, and (3) discounting a lay statement.[2] The Commissioner argues that the ALJ's ...


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