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Hunt v. Colvin

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

October 31, 2013

SAMUEL J. HUNT, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

Kathryn Tassinari, Drew Johnson, DREW L. JOHNSON, P.C., Eugene, Oregon, Attorney for Plaintiff.

S. Amanda Marshall, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, District of Oregon, Adrian L. Brown, ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY Portland, Oregon, Nancy A. Mishalanie, SPECIAL ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Office of the General Counsel Social Security Administration, Seattle, Washington, Attorneys for Defendant.


MARCO A. HERNANDEZ, District Judge.

Plaintiff Samuel Hunt brings this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI). This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (incorporated by 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)). I affirm the Commissioner's decision.


Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on January 5, 2009, alleging an onset date of June 15, 2003.[1] Tr. 245-49. His application was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 106-27.

On August 1, 2011, Plaintiff appeared in person, with counsel appearing by telephone, for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Tr. 45-77. On August 10, 2011, the ALJ found Plaintiff not disabled. Tr. 26-44. The Appeals Council denied review. Tr. 1-4.


Plaintiff alleges disability based on emotional issues from childhood abuse, inability to focus, depression, back pain, fetal alcohol syndrome, dyslexia, and a heart problem. Tr. 300. At the time of the hearing, he was fifty-four years old. Tr. 51. The record contains conflicting information regarding his education. At the hearing Plaintiff testified that he dropped out of school in the seventh grade and did not obtain a general equivalency degree. Tr. 51-52. But, he stated in his disability report that he completed twelfth grade and did not attend special education classes and he reported to a consultative examiner that he dropped out of school at age sixteen, attended special education classes, and had a diploma mailed to him from Arizona. Tr. 307, 397. He has past relevant work experience as a dry dock worker, truck driver, meat grader, hod carrier, deck hand, dishwasher, and general laborer. Tr. 19, 64, 362. Because the parties are familiar with the medical and other evidence of record, I refer to any additional relevant facts necessary to my decision in the discussion section below.


A claimant is disabled if unable to "engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which... has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(3)(a).

Disability claims are evaluated according to a five-step procedure. See Valentine v. Comm'r , 574 F.3d 685, 689 (9th Cir. 2009) (in social security cases, agency uses five-step procedure to determine disability). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of proving disability. Id.

In the first step, the Commissioner determines whether a claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." If so, the claimant is not disabled. Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). In step two, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant has a "medically severe impairment or combination of impairments." Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 140-41; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If not, the claimant is not disabled.

In step three, the Commissioner determines whether plaintiff's impairments, singly or in combination, meet or equal "one of a number of listed impairments that the [Commissioner] acknowledges are so severe as to preclude substantial gainful activity." Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If so, the claimant is conclusively presumed disabled; if not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141.

In step four, the Commissioner determines whether the claimant, despite any impairment(s), has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e). If the claimant can, the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. In step five, the Commissioner must establish that the claimant can perform other work. Yuckert , 482 U.S. at 141-42; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e) & (f), 416.920(e) & (f). If the Commissioner meets his burden and proves that the claimant is able to perform other work which exists in the national economy, the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1566, 416.966.


At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2007, his amended alleged onset date. Tr. 12. Next, at step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine, status post knee surgery, borderline intellectual functioning, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), psychotic disorder NOS, dysthymic disorder NOS, depressive disorder NOS, generalized anxiety disorder, and a history of polysubstance abuse. Id . At step three, the ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal, either singly or in combination, a listed impairment. Tr. 13.

At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform light work except (1) he can occasionally stoop, crouch, and climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; (2) he can frequently balance, kneel, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; (3) he can have no more than frequent exposure to vibrations; (4) he is able to understand, remember, and carry out one- and two-step instructions and tasks only; (5) he needs work instructions presented to him orally; (6) he is limited to only brief, incidental contact with the general public, with no more than frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors; and (7) his educational level is marginal. Tr. 14-15. With this RFC, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of his past relevant work. Tr. 19. However, at step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers in the economy such as bench assembler, paper inserter, and small product assembler. Tr. 19-20. Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is not disabled. Tr. 20.


A court may set aside the Commissioner's denial of benefits only when the Commissioner's findings are based on legal error or are not supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. Vasquez v. Astrue , 572 F.3d 586, 591 (9th Cir. 2009). "Substantial evidence means more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance; it is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id . (internal quotation marks omitted). The court considers the record as a whole, including both the evidence that supports and detracts from the Commissioner's decision. Id .; Lingenfelter v. Astrue , 504 F.3d 1028, 1035 (9th Cir. 2007). "Where the evidence is susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the ALJ's decision must be affirmed." Vasquez , 572 F.3d at 591 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted); see also ...

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